Guest Commentary

Missouri’s rural jailing policies hurt public safety in our cities

Handcuffed man behind prison bars. Arrested criminal male person imprisoned.
Handcuffed man behind prison bars. Arrested criminal male person imprisoned. File photo

The goal of every criminal justice policy should be to squeeze as much public safety out of every dollar spent. While that may seem obvious, Missouri leaders appear more focused on powerful constituencies and less on outcomes. And it’s the urban areas that are quite literally paying the price.

Let’s start with our record: Our state has the 10th highest rate for violent crime in the U.S. and the eighth highest rate of incarceration (the fifth highest for women), with a prison budget that has grown more than $150 million in just a decade, despite declining national trends. That means Missouri locks up a lot of people and spends an outrageous sum, but doesn’t get much bang for its public safety buck.

One reason there is so little return on investment is because while urban areas generate more tax revenue, that money isn’t proportionally returned to strategically drive down violent crime, but rather to support practices in rural areas that are ineffective and, dare I say, unconstitutional.

According to the last sentencing report, about half of all inmates in Missouri’s prisons (48 percent) are incarcerated for a non-violent offense. That’s more than $323 million a year locking up people who have not physically harmed anyone else. Imagine if Kansas City had even a small percentage of those dollars to implement effective violent crime-prevention strategies, improve case clearance rates and address severe mental health issues that precipitate criminal conduct. But while cities are without the tools to address violent crime, up to 73 percent of those incarcerated from places such as Lafayette and Saline are non-violent, and half are first-time offenders.

Locking citizens in cages — with rare exception — should be for the sole purpose of keeping others safe. But jails in every corner of the state are full, and not with those who have been convicted of a crime, but with people who can’t afford to post bond when facing low-level charges. For example, in Texas County a mere allegation of stealing gasoline can get someone jailed on a $100,000 bond.

And so these individuals are forced to sit in jail for weeks and months while they wait for their cases to be resolved. They lose their jobs, their apartments — not because of a public safety concern, but because the county wants money to operate its jail.

Not only are state leaders looking the other way when their constituents are jailed for being poor (in violation of the Eighth Amendment), but they are encouraging the practice by being the only state in the nation to reimburse counties (more than $43 million a year) for detaining people before trial. What’s worse is the perverse incentive they add: Counties get money only if the defendant is ultimately sent to state prison.

Think about it. If a defendant receives probation or a fine — which is often appropriate for a low-level offense — the county gets nothing. And so, for many rural counties that don’t have the tax base to fund their jail operations, the state’s reimbursement policy acts as a financial incentive to send someone to prison when there’s no public safety basis to do so. So, if you’ve ever wondered why violent crime and incarceration rates are down elsewhere, but not in Missouri, look no further.

We’re like a hospital with a high mortality rate, but a focus on hospitalizing patients with broken bones because being “tough on fractures” plays well at home. Public safety policies should be tailored to reduce victimization, not to subsidize operations that don’t yield results. Because the cities are the economic engine for the state, which in turn helps the rural areas, reinvesting these funds to prevent violent crime will lift Missouri as a whole.

Missouri Influencers panelist Michael Barrett is director of the Missouri State Public Defender System, a former interrogator in the U.S. Army and former deputy commissioner for criminal justice programs in New York.