JEFFERSON CITY • In early 2017, a state lawmaker shot up a flare, saying Missouri may be on a “collision course” to building a new prison.
That was an apparent understatement.
If major improvements aren’t made at the Department of Corrections, two new prisons will be needed soon, according to an independent group asked by officials to study Missouri’s incarceration problem.
The Council of State Governments Justice Center warns that $189 million must be invested over the next five fiscal years, primarily by expanding and improving options to treat offenders in the community for behavioral health problems.
Otherwise, it says, risk paying $485 million in “status quo costs” to build and operate two new prisons in the same time frame.
“Your corrections system is kind of in a make-or-break moment,” Andy Barbee, director of research at the council, said in an interview.
Missouri’s prison system is running at 105 percent of capacity. More than 36,000 people are spread across a network of 21 prisons, including about 5,000 people temporarily passing through for screening, treatment and other reasons.
The pipeline isn’t letting up. According to the council, Missouri’s incarceration rate is the eighth-highest in the country and the highest for women, who often get stuck in a revolving door by violating the terms of their probation and parole for drug use.
Of 19,000 people admitted in 2016, just 15 percent of offenders were new to prison. Half of them violated terms of supervised release and more than a third were sentenced to prison just for drug treatment.
Drug treatment in prison is costly, ineffective and, according to the council’s blunt findings, “no better than for people who do not get treatment.”
“Missouri needs to move from a prison-focused to a community-focused treatment system that can serve more people and deliver improved outcomes,” the council reported.
This isn’t a report from the fringe.
Last spring, Republican Gov. Eric Greitens and other state officials asked the council to do a comprehensive study of the prison system. Now, after several months of traveling the state and analyzing data, a host of alarming findings have been delivered to a state task force that unanimously approved recommendations to address the problems.
The task force includes lawmakers, judges, police, leaders of state departments of mental health and corrections, and council employees. The recommendations were sent to Greitens on Dec. 29, before he publicly outlines his next budget and as the state Legislature starts the 2018 session.
“We are cautiously optimistic that he will be supportive,” Barbee said.
The council is working with Missouri as part of the federal Justice Reinvestment Initiative. In the past decade, the nonprofit organization has tried to help reform 27 other state prison systems primarily with the use of evidence-based practices.
The $189 million in reinvestment goals and policies recommended in Missouri include:
• Reduce treatment-related admission to prison by 50 percent by paying $141 million by 2023 to improve, create and fund an “array” of community-based substance abuse and mental health treatment services that bolster “both public health and public safety outcomes”; offering incentives to treatment providers based on outcomes; expanding the behavioral health workforce, particularly in rural areas.
• Reduce violent crime by doing a $15 million overhaul of criminal justice related IT systems; establishing a grant program at the Missouri Department of Public Safety to help jurisdictions better analyze crime data; expanding eligibility requirements to crime victim compensation; improving management of jail resources.
• Reduce technical revocations to prison by 20 to 30 percent by 2023 with better training, management of probation and parole, technology and various programs, while holding people accountable.
According to the council’s analysis, the five-year cost avoidance is $296 million, taking into account the “status quo costs” of spending $485 million to build and run two new prisons in the same time frame.
James Williamson, an offender at Northeast Correctional Center in Bowling Green, wishes changes were imminent. The prison is at full capacity. He said 24 men in his cell area share one toilet. He said he suffers from embarrassment and shame because of a bladder condition that causes him to urinate often.
“Also, having this many men in a confined area, with access to only one bathroom, creates an unsafe and unsanitary environment,” he said.
The corrections department said implementing the council’s recommendations would reduce prison population and alleviate issues such as having too many people share one toilet and “countless other problems.”
“We are going to use the justice reinvestment approach to enhance a criminal justice system that is effective, cost efficient and delivers results the citizens of Missouri can be proud of,” Anne Precythe, director of the corrections department, said several months ago, when the council started digging in.
Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Shell Knob who sat on the task force, serves as chairman of the House Budget Committee.
During budget negotiations in 2017, it was Fitzpatrick who raised the specter of having to build another prison.
He said his warning was meant to spur discussions about sentencing options in Missouri.
“We need to be sentencing the right people,” Fitzpatrick said.
As for the recommendations of the task force, he said he plans to meet with Precythe in the coming weeks to try to balance the needs of the department against the pressures of other state spending.
“They had some pretty expensive recommendations,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’re going to be looking at them.”
Another task force member, Sen. Shalonn “Kiki” Curls, D-Kansas City, said the state’s tight finances will mean state officials must outline some short-term goals and long-term goals.
“I think all of us recognize the difficulty we have in the budgeting process. It will be important for us to be able to prioritize some of the recommendations from the committee,” Curls said.