In the 80’s and 90’s, politicians from both parties wanted to be tough on crime. A favored tool was stripping judges of their discretion in favor of mandatory minimum sentences set by the legislature. Unsurprisingly, prison populations have gone up. But has the investment of public dollars been worth the return on public safety? The research tells us that it hasn’t.
Missouri leads the Midwest in incarceration rates, and we’re eighth highest in the nation. We just recently lost to Kentucky our position of having the highest incarceration rate for women. If we do nothing to slow the flood of new inmates, Missouri will need to spend about $485 million in the next five years to build and operate two new prisons. For comparison’s sake, the entire budget of the state Department of Corrections is $725 million in 2018. (It was $580 million in 2006.)
According to the Missouri Department of Corrections’ 2016 Profile of Institutional and Supervised Offender Population, 41 percent of inmates are incarcerated for nonviolent and/or drug-related crimes. These two offender groups, incidentally, are the fastest-growing populations since 2011. Missourians could save hundreds of millions of dollars if courts had the flexibility to sentence these offenders to treatment programs or probationary periods prior to locking them up—while still retaining the ability to protect us from violent or habitual offenders.
Furthermore, research indicates that large sentences are not as effective a deterrent as swift capture and conviction. And large sentences are expensive, and not just in terms of the public dollars used to house and feed inmates. They also impose a significant cost on families and make it harder for ex-offenders to re-enter the workforce and become productive members of society.
The good news is that there is a better way.
Other states, such as Texas, have found ways to increase public safety and reduce recidivism while reducing public spending on prisons. Reducing mandatory minimum sentencing in certain circumstances is a part of that public policy strategy. Let’s return to judges the discretion they need to separate violent offenders from those who pose less of a threat. To do nothing will put greater pressure on public coffers while offering no respite from crime.