Corrections: Missouri prison population declining, staffing improving

In this Sept. 15, 2004 file photo, a Missouri Department of Corrections bus moves inmates into Jefferson City Correctional Center.
In this Sept. 15, 2004 file photo, a Missouri Department of Corrections bus moves inmates into Jefferson City Correctional Center.

Missouri's prison population has dipped slightly during the past two years, settling at around 23,000 offenders.

Following changes to the state's criminal code five years ago, the number of incarcerated Missourians has declined by nearly 10,000 people. With 23,600 offenders currently in Missouri prisons, the number has largely leveled off.

"It's stayed at the 23,000-mark since 2020," said Karen Pojmann, communications director for the Missouri Department of Corrections.

Somewhere between 15,000-18,000 people are released from Missouri prisons each year, Pojmann said, and about the same amount are entering.

Missouri's prison population is 30 percent less than it was in 2017.

There were approximately 33,000 offenders in Missouri prisons in 2017. The state had the eighth-highest prison population and the fastest growing population of women offenders in the country. Facing overcrowding issues, the Department of Corrections was looking to spend more than $400 million opening two new facilities: a women's prison and a men's prison.

Pojmann said about half the people going into prison in 2017 were being incarcerated for technical probation and parole violations rather than new crimes. Violations may have been missed meetings with parole officers, failure to keep a job, or failing a drug test.

"So we had to take some steps to really change things," Pojmann said.

A change to Missouri's criminal code that allows judges to sentence some offenders who commit nonviolent crimes to parole instead of prison was the biggest.

"They don't come into the prison system unless they have some serious violation of their probation," Pojmann said.

She said the department has also put a heavier focus on improving offenders' chances of success once leaving prison.

Part of those efforts brought in the Council of State Governments in 2017, which analyzed Missouri's criminal justice system and recommended improvements. One of those suggestions was the addition of programs to help people on probation and parole who are at a high risk of re-offending or returning to prison on technical parole violations.

Missouri's response was the Improving Community Treatment Success program, launched in three counties in 2018. It has since been expanded to 12 counties. The program, which is allocated $5 million per year, helps people address behavioral health issues, find affordable childcare and transportation for employment, and identify other assistance programs.

"We've had a lot of success with that," Pojmann said.

The department has about six provision centers and two transition centers throughout the state that also help to support offenders transition back into society. The newest facility, a residential transition center, opened in April in Kansas City.

Those programs use state resources to invest in offenders, Pojmann said.

"That's kind of the thinking behind justice reinvestment," she said. "So we're reinvesting in helping people succeed in the community rather than building new prisons."

With numbers declining, the state closed a prison and housing units in six others by 2020.

In 2019, the department stopped using Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron and moved its 960 maximum-security prisoners to nearby Western Missouri Correctional Center, also in Cameron.

The next year, Gov. Mike Parson announced plans to close housing units in Algoa, Tipton, Boonville, Farmington and Northeast correctional centers and Western Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center.

The Kansas City Re-entry Center, a minimum security prison, was transformed into the residential transition center that opened in April.

And facility changes are still happening.

Pojmann said the department is moving offenders back into Crossroads Correctional Center from Western Missouri Correctional Center, reversing the 2019 move.

"At the time, WMCC was selected for housing offenders because it's bigger and could accommodate the population," she said. "Now that the statewide prison population has declined even more, we're able to move offenders back into CRCC, which is a more modern facility that can better serve the needs of residents and staff."

While the number of offenders in Missouri prisons is declining, the number of corrections staff is increasing. Unlike a couple years ago, Pojmann said the department is keeping more employees than it is losing.

"Obviously the pay increases have helped tremendously," she said.

The state has invested more than $113 million in pay increases for corrections staff during the past five years, which is a 30 percent increase in the starting salary of corrections officers -- now $38,000 annually.

Statewide advertising campaigns via radio, digital and print outlets, billboards, social media campaigns, and partnerships with chambers of commerce and job centers throughout the state have contributed to the uptick in employees as well.

Pojmann said the department's referral incentive program, which gives employees up to a $1,000 bonus for recruiting another staff member who stays longer than six months, has also been successful.

Correctional officer applications increased 260 percent in the first half of the year, Pojmann said, with more than 90 percent of those applications getting an interview.

The department's net gain of correctional officers has increased each month so far this year, she said, with more than 22 percent of new officers coming from employee referrals.

An ongoing recruiting competition between the facilities, the second phase of which ends in October, has produced more employees than expected, Pojmann said.

Pojmann said some facilities around the state are more staffed than others, but all can be operating with more staff.

"We still do need more staff -- we do have a staffing shortage," she said. "And we are eager to get more applicants."

More employees would reduce the amount of overtime staff are required to work, improve safety and general well-being, she said.

Pojmann said a changing culture within the department has also been notable.

The Corrections Way, the department's training program laying out guiding principles, has led to positive changes, Pojmann said.

Employee responses to the state's Quarterly Pulse Survey, administered to employees across all state departments to gauge employee satisfaction and organizational health, indicates major gains in leadership, direction and motivation, Pojmann said. The Department of Corrections has led every other state agency in improvement since 2018, she noted.

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