LINN, Mo. — "We have a story to tell, and everyone has a vested interest," Missouri Director of Corrections Anne Precythe said Friday at a daylong forum on public safety in the state.
The forum, which was held at State Technical College, is the continuance of an earlier conversation she and officials from other states had about emerging trends in public safety.
"What we found were that the national trends were the same as what we were seeing in Missouri," Precythe said. "Violent crime was on the rise, substance abuse was going up, and there was high recidivism in jails and prisons. There was also a problem finding housing and employment for offenders once they get out."
Precythe said Friday's event came about when the federal government put out a request for states to have forums to talk about these issues and ways to address the problems. She said Gov. Mike Parson applied for a grant from the Department of Justice, and Missouri was one of 25 states chosen to hold a forum.
"I'm challenging each of you to think about what you learn here and take it back and apply to your area," Precythe said.
The key areas the forum focused on included improving infrastructure to better support victims of crime, supporting law enforcement and understanding crime, and reducing jail and prison populations.
"If we reduce prison spending, then we can use the savings to go back into our communities," she said. "Half of all our prison admissions are due to a failure in the community supervision programs. Prisons are expensive, and that's where these people end up. And we can't forget that many of these folks already have been in local facilities before they come to prison."
Precythe said Missouri partnered with the Council of State Governments on a Justice Reinvestment Initiative in the second half of 2017.
The partnership entailed extensive research into the state's entire criminal justice system, which revealed about half of the people who return to prison are there because of technical parole violations, such as missing an appointment with a parole officer or failing to keep a job — not because they had committed new crimes.
These technical violations, she said, account for about 3,400 prison beds and costs the state nearly $74 million a year.
"While the national incarceration rate has gone down, Missouri's has gone up," she said. "The violent crime rate increased while the likelihood of arrest for those crimes has declined 30 percent.
"So that begs the question, 'What are law officers doing?' she said. "The answer, due to a lack of access to community treatment facilities, law officers are having to respond to deal with people who have overdosed or have mental health issues, and that takes them away from their true law enforcement activities."
Cole County Sheriff John Wheeler, who is serving on a task force looking to address these issues, was at Friday's meeting. He said it's good to raise the awareness of these problems, but it's time to get out in front of the problems.
"Unfortunately, it's going to come down to a matter of funding," Wheeler said. "In my jail alone, with 162 people in custody now, it falls on the citizens of the county to fund that 100 percent. The state only pays us $19 a day for holding prisoners when it probably should be around $45.
"We've got to do something to increase funding so we can get the services inside our county jails," he said.
Wheeler said the Cole County Jail, despite being open just over 10 years, is not set up to handle the services needed to help offenders before they are released.
"We're not set up like Corrections is to correct a person's behavior," he said. "We're set up to hold people awaiting their appearances in court or because they're a threat to the public."
Wheeler currently has 12 vacancies in his department; 10 are in the jail division.
"If they came up with something today that could reduce recidivism by 50 percent, I couldn't do it now because I don't have the staff," he said. "I have problems now just allowing clergy to come and do services in the jail.
"If I can help someone come to know the Lord and that helps them when they get out of our facility, that's a great thing. But I have to make sure that those clergy or others coming in are safely protected, and I can't do that now."