Legislators, looking for ways to cut the state budget, have been told that alternatives to prison might be the answer.

Estimates of the budget shortfall legislators might face in the 2011 session have fallen in the range of $400-to-700 million. Chairman of the House Interim Committee on Budget Transparency, Rep. Ryan Silvey (R-Kansas City), estimates lawmakers will have to settle on $700 million in cuts to keep the state budget balanced for the next fiscal year. Silvey will be chairman of the House Budget Committee in the next session. He has been holding hearings with the special interim committee to get a jump on the dire budget talks ahead.

Missouri Chief Justice Ray Price, appearing before the interim committee, has told lawmakers that treatment beats incarceration. Price points out it costs approximately $16,400 a year to incarcerate a non-violent criminal; a fifth to a fourth that amount to treat them. And Price says the outcome of treatment is better.

Price added during his testimony at the Capitol that no one truly knows the collateral damage done by budget cuts the last few years.

“I can see what cuts might come to the judiciary and plan for those,” Price stated. “But I don’t really always understand the cuts that will go to the Department of Corrections, the cuts that will go to the Department of Social Services, the cuts that will go to mental health and how we will have to adjust for areas where they helped us before and can’t help us anymore.”

Price has long pushed for an expansion of Missouri’s successful drug courts, arguing that drug courts often keep addicts out of prison and offer them the treatment needed to break their addiction. Drunken driving courts, family courts and other such specialized judiciary undertakings have had similar effects.

Lawmakers might need to consider taking drastic steps to free up the money needed to expand such specialized courts.

“To fund a lot of this, you might need to close a prison,” Price said. “And use the money from the prison to fund all these other activities.”

State Corrections Director George Lombardi, appearing after Price, assured the interim committee that the Corrections Department has no plans at present to close any of the state’s prisons.

AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [1:10 MP3]