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DOC looks to reduce prison populations, recidivism

December 9, 2018 at 6:05 a.m. | Updated December 9, 2018 at 12:25 p.m.
Algoa Correctional Center is shown in this photograph taken Friday, July 6, 2018.

LINN, Mo. - Missouri Corrections and law enforcement officials are looking for ways to reduce the current prison population.

In 2016, Missouri's prisons had more than 32,000 inmates - including 634 more inmates total than the facilities were built to hold.

Laura van der Lugt, a senior policy analyst with the national Council of State Governments Justice Center, told Friday's State Forum on Public Safety that Missouri's crime rate stayed generally steady over the last decade or so, but the number of arrests for those crimes fell.

However, from 2013-16, according to her numbers, there was a 20 percent increase in the reporting of violent crimes with up to a 10 percent increase in the reporting for all categories, as well as a 44 percent increase in homicides reported.

Increasing violent crime reports aren't limited to Missouri's biggest cities - where the current national statistics have St. Louis ranked number one for violent crimes per capita, and Kansas City is 13th.

"It also is very much a problem in rural communities," van der Lugt noted.

The Council of State Governments says Missouri has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country and in Missouri, she said, adding more women are being arrested for criminal activities than in the past - and are being put in prison at a faster rate than other states.

State Public Safety Director Sandy Karsten acknowledged Missouri's crime statistics "are concerning."

Gov. Mike Parson told the more than 150 people attending Friday's Public Safety Forum in Linn: "For us to be known as (having) some of the highest crime rates in the United States of America - in our two urban cities, along with other, smaller, urban cities - is not something any of us should be very proud of.

"And you see other cities, like Boston, like Nashville, that have had similar problems but have had some success in trying to reduce that. We've got to step up.

"Everybody who's in this room today has to figure out how we come up with solutions to those problems."

Parson said he thinks finding solutions is possible - and said he intends to help by creating a task force to search for and suggest real solutions to the problems.

In his remarks to Friday's conference, Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe promoted the idea of cooperation among the various arms of law enforcement and Missouri's criminal justice system.

"I know that you have a vision to make your communities better," Kehoe said. "I know you have a vision to make your departments better, and you have a vision to make sure that the end-product we've been talking about comes out ahead.

"You can try to encourage your people to not be territorial, to work together, so that we do make our communities a better place to live, so that we have a coordinated effort with the various agencies."

Van der Lugt added: "Law enforcement alone cannot reduce violent crime (and) cannot solely improve public safety."

During a panel discussion of law officers, few were surprised increasing drug use has created extra issues for law officers and contributed to increases in jail populations.

In Christian County, south of Springfield, a jail designed for 98 inmates regularly has been holding more than 150 - and at times, more than 175, Sheriff Brad Cole reported.

"We started exploring different ideas and different things to do, and at the point where we decided we had to ask for help," Cole explained, "we implemented strategies (and) made some programs we thought would work, simply by brainstorming with people, professionals (and) other law enforcement from our community."

That work resulted in people with mental health skills being called to accident and crime scenes to help determine if people needed help even before they were arrested or taken to jail.

Pettis County Sheriff Kevin Bond said: "95 percent of the people in my jail are addicted to some kind of substance," and programs to help treat them instead of imprison them - over time - should help reduce the need to put them in jail.

Better budgets also are needed in rural areas, they said, where the jail populations are increasing but the tax income to run the facilities are not.

Corrections Director Anne Precythe said her department is committed to reducing the number of people who go to or return to prisons.

That includes trying to find alternatives - like substance abuse courts - to sending people to prison so they can get treatment for their addictions.

Just counting probation violators who are sent to prison because of their violations, Precythe reported, "Those 3,477 people spend an average of 12 months in prison to the tune of $58 a day.

"When you do the math, those 3,477 are costing us $74.7 million annually - that's just the simple math and what it's costing us in Corrections dollars.

"That doesn't add in the social costs - the fact that somebody's not able to work and provide for their family, and there's no role model in the home for the children."

Precythe and Karsten emphasized the effort to keep more people out of prisons shouldn't be seen as them being "soft on crime" but rather as a way to keep people who really shouldn't be in prison from going there.

"I give complete credit to the Missourians in this state," said Precythe, who came to Missouri government in 2017 after working in North Carolina'a Corrections system.

"We have embraced this (Justice Reinvestment Initiative) movement and the ability to believe that we can do things differently, have a better outcome and spend our money in a more beneficial way for the citizens."

Julie Kempker, director of the Corrections Department's Probation and Parole Division, said the state's 1,600 officers who work with people on probation and still living in society are looking for ways to improve their services.

"When your assessments aren't right," she said, "the intervention and treatment-step strategies aren't right, and success is not going to happen."

She said the department will need help from other parts of the law enforcement community "as we're developing case management plans to assist us in providing employment, treatment (and) housing, child care and whatever these initiatives are that we identify as contributing factors for failure."

Ken Chapman, the department's manager of ReEntry and Women's Services, said the department is working to make sure its internal programs recognize the different needs of its women inmates from what the men need.

And they're getting more assistance from groups outside the prison system.

Don Phillips, a 28-year Highway Patrol veteran who spent most of the last eight years as a state representative from Kimberling City, is the new chairman of the state's Board of Probation and Parole.

"It surprises people when they learn that we do 10,000 parole hearings a year" for people in-prison who are seeking to be released from it, he said. "I think we have to look at a different way of doing things."

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