Published November 13th, 2019 at 6:00 AM
Back in 2017, the state of Missouri began taking a hard look at its prison crisis.
With nearly 33,000 inmates, the state had the eighth-highest incarceration rate in the country.
Moreover, the prison population was projected to remain above capacity into the next decade, unless the state spent $500 million building and operating two new prisons.
The number crunching came courtesy of The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, and the analysis included this kicker: More than a quarter of the people put in prison the year before were back in the slammer for technical violations of probation or parole, such as a failed drug test.
The Kansas Department of Corrections had done similar work with CSG, and even though its incarceration rate was way below Missouri’s at No. 33, it too had identified relatively minor infractions of community supervision plans as a major contributor to its prison population.
The bottom line is this, said Laura van der Lugt, a senior policy analyst at the CSG Justice Center: “We want to reduce technical violations while maintaining public safety.”
Reimprisoning a murderer who kills again while out on parole seems to be a no-brainer. But does it make sense to put that murderer back in prison if he is doing everything right, but misses a couple appointments with a parole officer because of car trouble?
The issue echoes the prevention-treatment debate that cuts across many social services.
In healthcare, it comes down to whether you help a patient lose weight or wait until their diabetes lands them in the more costly hospital setting. In corrections, it comes down to whether you address parolees’ underlying problems (such as drug abuse or mental illness) or wait until those issues prompt a reoffense that lands them back in prison.
In Missouri, the work by CSG and its partners spurred the Justice Reinvestment Initiative within the Department of Corrections. Legislation signed in June 2018 implemented the initiative’s framework. Lawmakers have appropriated $11 million for the initiative in the first two years.
Along with reducing recidivism, and cutting down on returns for technical violations, the initiative looks to address the fastest-growing female prison population in the country. It also seeks to focus more resources on violent crime.
The department lists more than a dozen changes spurred by the initiative, including a treatment pilot launched in Buchanan, Butler and Boone counties. The pilot partners the Probation and Parole Division with the Missouri Department of Mental Health to help clients at risk of falling down in community treatment.
The department has also restructured its community supervision centers to ensure that residential placements go to former inmates that need intensive help to stay on track.
One of the state’s centers became an all-female facility, which the department says, offers programming that is both “gender-responsive and trauma informed, to better serve women under supervision in a rehabilitative environment.”
Kansas has undertaken work similar to that in Missouri, said corrections spokesman Randy Bowman.
In the past decade and a half, he said, the state has reduced its recidivism rate from about 55% to about 34%. That reduction came through previous work with CSG, he said, and the department is again working with the organization to see if it can drive the rate down further.
Overcrowded conditions at state prisons have forced Kansas to take the controversial step of sending hundreds of inmates to a privately run prison in Arizona. The number could eventually reach 600.
Bowman said the work of preparing an inmate for re-entry into society begins with a transition plan developed right after the inmate is sent to prison by the court. The plan contemplates the barriers the inmate might face when released, such as a lack of transportation, housing, or even official identification.
He also said successful reintegration relies on “good core correctional practices” of providing the right level of support and supervision for inmates.
Bowman said the Legislature has helped by adding funds so that the department can increase the starting wage for corrections officers. This has helped fill staff vacancies, so the department can reduce caseloads for staff both inside and outside the prison.
(Understaffing and overcrowding proved problematic in Missouri, too, where the conditions led to a May 2018 riot at the Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, Missouri. The riot caused an estimated $1.3 million damage.)
Despite the continuing challenges, van der Lugt said the two states deserve kudos for digging into the data and working on solutions. It is not an easy task, she said. “Each state is its own sort of puzzle.”
—Mike Sherry is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 816.398.4205