Robbing the Scholastic Peter to Pay for the Incarcerated Paul: The Show-Me State Showing Its Mulishness (3)

Robbing the Scholastic Peter to Pay for the Incarcerated Paul: The Show-Me State Showing Its Mulishness (3)

By Jon Marc Taylor

“For years and years,” observes Robin Cook, an MU senior and student activist, who lobbied the State General Assembly in 2003 not to further cut the university budget, “the legislature has decided that higher education is essentially the whipping boy for state government.” For Robin and tens of thousands of other students, between 2002 and 2004, the rate of tuition at the University of Missouri – Columbia rose 28 percent.”

In 2008 State Senator Ken Jacob, whose district included the University of Missouri – Columbia, and who also advocated for more funding for higher education, noted that other Big 12 Conference schools did not have the same overall spending demands as Missouri. “They don’t have the number of people in prison. They don’t have the roads to maintain, they don’t have the number of mentally ill, they don’t have the number of Medicaid problems we have” (emphasis added). The cited “problems” though were largely self-chosen ones.

Policy Not Crime Pushes Prison Rates

“The astonishing thing about the rates of incarceration in the United States,” observes Franklin Zimring, director of the Earl Warren Legal Institute of the University of California, Berkeley, “is that they’ve been going up for nearly thirty straight years.”

The astonishing thing with the rate of incarceration in Missouri is that not only has it perpetually increased, but it has also done so at a faster rate than in the socially economically comparable sister states of Illinois and Kansas.

What is even more perplexing is that Americans have never experienced a lower overall crime rate,  since accurate standards were established thirty-five years ago, than the present time.

Missourians are no more or less safe than anyone else, yet each taxpayer of the Show-Me State finances a much larger prison system than is justified. At least for a penal complex solely rationalized for the purpose of public safety alone.

Crime rate indexes for Illinois, Kansas, and Missouri are essentially the same. And as already cited, are the lowest they have ever been overall in the modern era. Yet costly prison populations, however, are markedly different between the states. Adjusted per-hundred-thousand residents for equitable comparisons, Missouri incarcerates 30 percent more prisoners than Illinois and imprisons gluttonously 45 percent more offenders than Kansas.

Moreover, this Midwestern prison-industrial behemoth consumes 7.4 percent of the general fund in the Show-He State, as compared to 5.2 and 5.6 percent, respectively, of the Illinois and Kansas general funds. A difference that is directly relatable to the student cost of tuition at their respective public-supported colleges and universities. A ratio nonetheless that by 2007, that demonstrates for every public dollar invested in higher education, the states of Kansas spent 40 cents and Illinois 51 cents on corrections, while Missouri diverted 67 cents into prisons for every dollar invested in collegiate support. On average, the Show-Me State spent 30 and 35 percent more prison dollars compared to higher education allocations than its sister states of Illinois and Kansas. The bottom line outcome, however, was nearly identical crime rates.

Many factors have affected the decrease in crime. Too varied to detail in this essay, the eminent criminologist Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University and Mien Beck, director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, examined the huge growth in the nation’s prison populations, concluding in 2004, that changes in crime commission explained only 12 percent of the rise in penal numbers, while harsher sentencing policies were responsible for 88 percent of the increases   (emphasis added). Succinctly put, Vincent Schiraldi, president of the Justice Policy Institute, states “there is no credible link between crime rates and incarceration rates.” The Midwestern sister state comparison detailed herein supports this analysis.

Criminal Policy Not Crime Rates

Two factors drive prison rates: admissions and length of stay. The equation of the number of persons sentenced to or returned to prison and the amount of time they end up serving behind bars push prison rates. ‘Who goes to prison or is returned to prison, and for how long they remain there varies from state to state, and from era to era. What determines these factors is politics.