Our Opinion: A sensible alternative to incarceration

The Missouri Supreme Court chief justice upheld common sense Wednesday when he reiterated the virtues of alternative sentencing.

During the annual State of the Judiciary address, William Ray Price Jr. referenced the past emphasis on incarceration and said: “We were tough on crime, but we were not smart on crime.” He could have added we were not frugal, either.

Let’s crunch a few numbers of interest to Missouri taxpayers.

• From 1982 to 2009, Missouri’s prison population increased by more than five times, from 5,953 inmates to 30,432.

• During that same period, the Department of Corrections budget ballooned more than 12 times, from $55 million to $665 million.

• The annual cost to incarcerate an inmate now is $16,400, according to Price, who put the number of nonviolent offenders at 14,700.

Price acknowledges — and we agree — violent offenders must be incarcerated to protect society. But for many nonviolent offenders, drug courts and DWI courts are more effective and less expensive.

Cole County Drug Court Administrator Steve Nelson said the average cost to participate in local drug court is $3,500, a fraction of the $16,400 incarceration figure.

Are drug courts effective?

Not always, but much of the time.

The 2010 statewide graduation rate for drug court was 54 percent, according to data from the Office of State Courts Administrator. Nelson fixes Cole County’s success rate higher, at 70 percent. The county recently began offering DWI court, but no statistics are available yet.

We contend a graduation from drug or DWI court is a far better outcome than incarceration, which carries a 58.5 percent recidivism rate after five years, according to Price.

The addict or alcoholic who completes the court’s stringent requirements and remains clean is positioned to become a productive, contributing member of both family and community.

Incarceration is necessary to separate violent offenders from potential victims. But for non-violent offenders capable of sustained recovery from addiction, alternative sentencing is a sensible alternative.

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