Barbara L. Finch and Jeanette Mott Oxford: Crime doesn't pay, but we do

Barbara L. Finch and Jeanette Mott Oxford: Crime doesn't pay, but we do

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The state of Missouri must really love our friend, Eric Clemmons. It has spent close to a million dollars on him.

Clemmons is a guest of the state, currently residing at the Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston. When he was 20, he was involved in a brawl in which, unfortunately, a young man died. Clemmons, uneducated and without financial resources, was represented by an overworked public defender. He was charged with capital murder and sentenced to life without parole for 50 years, even though a lesser charge was available that more clearly fit the facts and circumstances. A key witness for the state even changed her testimony about Clemmons in a later case, and none of the other actors in the brawl received sentences nearly as long. All have been out of prison for more than a decade. We are two of many voices advocating for Clemmons’ release, including judges who believe he was denied justice.

According to figures compiled by the Vera Institute of Justice, an independent, nonprofit national policy and research organization, in 2015 it cost the state $22,187 to care for Clemmons. Using that as a base annual figure, we can estimate that Missouri taxpayers have spent $820,919 to keep him in prison for more than three decades. If he is forced to complete his sentence, we will have invested more than $1 million to keep him locked up, away from family and friends, and unable to contribute to society.

Is this the best way for the government to spend your money?

This money does not go to lavish perks or benefits for the incarcerated. In Missouri, inmates are fed on less than $3 per day. Prisoners who are fortunate enough to secure a job within the institution make approximately $8 per month.

While taxpayers are shelling out funds to punish people, those behind bars are suffering financial consequences too. It’s costly to be an inmate. Prisoners are forced to purchase items needed for daily living (soap, toothpaste, etc.) from canteens or commissaries, where they are often highly marked up (and where state, county and sometimes city sales taxes are levied). It costs money to make phone calls and send emails. And, of course, incarcerated men and women are not building wealth (paying into Social Security, garnering some equity in a home, etc).

Having a loved one in prison also is costly for families. They lose an income-earner, and they incur both tangible and intangible expenses. Most prisons in Missouri are located in small towns (which can mean an economic advantage for rural communities because they provide employment). But these institutions are frequently hours away from relatives and friends of the incarcerated. Visits cost time and money; relationships suffer. Incarcerated men and women have limited ability to assume parenting responsibilities. Having a parent in prison costs children dearly; it makes the list of adverse childhood experiences and contributes to trauma and toxic stress in childhood development.

During the past 37 years, Clemmons has completed his high school equivalency degree and restorative justice classes, educational courses and vocational training programs offered by the Department of Corrections. He has earned a paralegal certificate. But once he’s released, realistically, job prospects for a 70-year-old former inmate are limited, even if he remains healthy. He will have no pension, no retirement income, and no health insurance. Once again, taxpayers will be responsible.

We acknowledge that incarceration can play an important role in public safety. But some of the ludicrously long sentences imposed on mainly poor black men during the 1980s and 1990s have damaged all of us.

As we begin a new decade, we urge Gov. Mike Parson’s administration to create a robust clemency review process. We urge the Missouri General Assembly to pass legislation granting prisoners over age 50 the ability to apply for a parole hearing after 25 years of incarceration. Data shows those over age 50 seldom re-offend.

It’s time to give criminal justice reform, and common sense, a chance.

Barbara L. Finch is a co-founder and past president of Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice. Jeanette Mott Oxford is a former state representative and executive director of Empower Missouri.

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