Guest Commentary

Most of those in Missouri’s prisons have earned their place

Timothy Lohmar, St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney and president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys
Timothy Lohmar, St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney and president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys

I read Missouri State Public Defender System Director Michael Barrett’s Nov. 2 guest commentary, “Rural jailing policies make cities less safe,” with great interest. Like Missouri’s other 114 elected prosecutors, I share Barrett’s desire for an efficient criminal justice system that prioritizes public safety.

However, his proposed solution defies logic. His chief complaint is that rural jurisdictions somehow compound urban crime by incarcerating too many criminals for too long. Of course, this overlooks the fact that crime rates are far lower in rural and suburban counties than in Missouri’s cities — almost certainly in part because of the very sentencing practices Barrett abhors.

When we discuss ways to improve the criminal justice system, it’s important to accurately describe who is behind bars. There are about 32,000 people in Missouri’s prisons. While that’s a big number, the truth is that our state penitentiaries hold only violent and career criminals who need to be locked up for the safety of the rest of us.

It’s a myth that our prisons are full of first-time, nonviolent offenders. The truth is that 99 percent of Missouri inmates are violent or sex offenders, career criminals or lawbreakers who failed while on probation or parole. Put another way, fewer than 400 of the 32,000 people in Missouri prisons are first-time, nonviolent felons sentenced to a prison term.

Furthermore, the very small number of criminals in prison for their first so-called “nonviolent” crimes are exactly the kind of dangerous people most of us think should be incarcerated: those convicted of three or more DWIs, fraudsters who have stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars from innocent victims and the like.

Barrett then pivots to the story of a man who spent time in a Texas County jail on a $100,000 bond purportedly due to the “mere allegation of stealing gasoline.” Again, Barrett omits some key details. That man had multiple prior convictions and was on probation when he stole several 55 gallon barrels of gasoline from a small school district. When he was caught, he told sheriff’s deputies, “If I get out of here, you will never find me again.” Most notably, that man is currently out of custody awaiting trial, having posted the bond Barrett finds so unreasonable.

There is actually good news about criminal justice reform. Barrett bemoans that people are jailed before trial because they can’t post bond. Fortunately, Christian County Prosecuting Attorney Amy Fite serves as co-chair of the Missouri Supreme Court’s Criminal Justice Task Force. That group of judges, prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys (including Barrett) and others has been working for months to ensure that people are not held simply because they cannot afford to post bond. The recommendations from that group would establish non-monetary conditions of pretrial release to help secure the court appearance of offenders who do not pose a risk to public safety.

Likewise, Barrett criticizes the “perverse incentive” for counties to recoup money related to jail stays of people ultimately sent to state prison. The truth is that counties have always been able to recoup that money for people who are convicted but placed on probation. Moreover, Missouri’s prosecutors worked just this year with a group of county commissioners, leaders from the Missouri Department of Corrections and other stakeholders (again including Barrett) to identify recommendations for “justice reinvestment.” Many of these recommendations were contained in House Bill 1355, which was signed into law. It allows counties to submit proposals for new ways to deal with accused criminals prior to trial, including using pretrial risk assessments and supervision strategies intended to reduce the number of people held in jail before trial.

For years, prosecutors have been at the forefront of these commonsense policies, as well as other proven and cost-effective solutions like treatment courts and diversion programs. We will continue to champion sensible criminal justice reform that prioritizes public safety. But when we discuss the criminal justice system, we need to begin with a forthright accounting of the facts and statistics that drive demands for change.

Timothy Lohmar is the St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney and president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.