Robbing the Scholastic Peter to Pay for the Incarcerated Paul: The Show-Me State Showing Its Mulishness (4)

Robbing the Scholastic Peter to Pay for the Incarcerated Paul: The Show-Me State Showing Its Mulishness (4)

By Jon Marc Taylor

Not only does Missouri proportionally lock up more of its residents than Illinois or Kansas, it does so for far longer terms as well than in any of the surrounding states. Missouri judges routinely sentence offenders to prison in excess of the national norms, to the point that Show-He State prisoners serve sentences approaching two-thirds longer than the national average.

Approaching two decades ago, the Missouri Legislature, in a pique of political pandering of “get tough on crime” rhetoric, enacted poorly thought out Truth-In-Sentencing statutes, mandating violent offenders serve a minimum of 85 percent of their sentences before becoming parole eligible. Since then myopic legislators have more than doubled the number of offenses receiving mandatory 85 percent terms by extending the sentencing laws to various offenses, and now to some white-collar crimes as well.

Part of the political calculus involved in these legislative decisions is that by adopting Truth-In-Sentencing guidelines, for the following decade, the state tapped in $50 million of federal largesse a year via the 1994 Crime Control bill’s carrot and stick prison building enticement. The short-sighted problem with the capturing of this federal funding infusion is that it eventually ran out, leaving a $50 million hole (i.e., 10% of the DOC’s then operational requirements) in the correctional budget. A budget moreover that had to support by then an existing penal system locked into incarcerating a policy-driven — not a crime-driven — economically and socially distorted prison-industrial complex. Legally unable and politically unwilling to adjust to a smaller, more comparatively equitable system of incarceration, the Show-Me State legislature had to further raid the higher education and other social service budgets to make up the new and annually perpetual $50 million funding hole.

None of this was or should have been, a surprise to the folks who are elected to run the state government. In his thorough 2001 report to the Missouri Legislature, “Arresting the Overflow,” State Senator Harold Caskey concluded that “sentencing practices across the state are one of the primary reasons for prison crowding.”

Supporting the senator’s findings, Professor John Wooldredge in his analysis of sentencing policies and prison overcrowding for the Journal of Crime and Delinquency concludes that mandatory sentences are the cause, if not the primary cause, of Missouri’s prison overcrowding problem.

Increases in the use of imprisonment over the past three decades have been much more the result of policy decisions — drug arrests, harsher sentencing laws, increased revocation of and restrictions in granting paroles —  than escalating crime rates. The Sentencing Project predicted more than a decade ago that “any marked downturn in the economy and /or political drive toward large tax cuts will require hard choices among areas of public investment.”

Those choices have been and are continuing to be made now. The proverbial chickens are coming home to roost in the Show-Me State. Policy choices made of who to lock up and for how long have directly contributed to the fiscal conditions causing nearly 100,000 of the poorest and most infirmed Missourians to no longer have Medicare coverage Missouri state workers are the lowest paid of all 50 states, causing some of them to actually qualify for food stamps. And for this analysis, Missouri parents sending their children to state colleges and universities are paying for far more than tuition. They are subsidizing the cost of a needlessly bloated penal system.

With “the welfare of the people shall be the supreme law” being the state’s motto, how well are we governing that welfare when we perpetuate a prison-industrial complex financed at the expense of everyone else?