Missouri ranks 8th highest among the 50 states in the rate at which it imprisons its people, including the greatest increase nationwide in its incarceration of women. However, the state continues to have a violent crime problem, especially in St. Louis, Kansas City, Springfield, Columbia and Wellston.

Is Missouri sending the right people to prison?

Information from the Council of State Governments Justice Center says 85% of women and 69% of men are newly admitted to a Missouri prison for nonviolent offenses. The cost to taxpayers to lock up an inmate in state prison is at least $20,000 per year.

Why are so many people going to prison who could arguably be serving their sentence in the community and contributing to the tax base? One reason could involve Missouri being possibly the only state in the nation that provides a financial incentive to send defendants to state prison. Missouri reimburses counties for a portion of the defendant’s entire local jail time while the person’s case goes through the court system. The catch is, the only way a county jail can get repaid for the total length of stay is if the offender goes to state prison. If the defendant is acquitted, or receives a fine, probation or a local jail sentence, the county gets reimbursed zero dollars.

Platte County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Zahnd tells Missourinet that less than 1% of Missouri’s state prisoners do not have a prior felony criminal history. The others have committed felonies in the past but may or may not have gone to prison for those felonies.

“I think it’s fair for a judge to say ‘Look, I might not send somebody to prison for their first non-violent felony but if they continue to commit felonies, eventually it’s clear that probation isn’t going to work and I’m going to send them to prison,’” says Zahnd.

He says there’s no financial incentive to send someone to prison for a county reimbursement.

“Someone who receives a prison sentence, but that prison sentence is suspended and the execution of the sentence is suspended, the county is still reimbursed. That’s really important to know,” says Zahnd.

In fiscal year 2017, the state’s daily reimbursement to county jails was $21.08. That’s a slice of the overall daily cost to house an inmate in a local jail. Missourinet contacted the Missouri Sheriffs’ Association for information about the average cost per day to house county jail prisoners. There was no response to the inquiry.

According to Missouri Corrections Department spokesman David Owen, the state reimbursed counties about $36 million in fiscal year 2017. That’s a fraction of the department’s overall budget. The Missouri Legislature and Governor Eric Greitens have approved a $760 million budget for the state Department of Corrections.

A state report shows that many of Missouri’s less populous counties are sending a higher per capita number of non-violent offenders to prison than their big-city counterparts. In Lafayette and Saline counties, more than 70% of the people they send to state prison are non-violent.

In June, Governor Greitens issued an executive order to create a Justice Reinvestment Task Force, which is made up of state lawmakers, criminal justice officials and others. The panel will look for ways to address the state’s rising prison population and the financial burden it has on taxpayers. Missouri has about 34,000 state prisoners.

“Our prison system wastes your money and it wastes people’s lives,” says Greitens.

State Public Defender System Director Michael Barrett is a member of the task force.

“If we want to bring down violent crime, we need to do a better job separating the people we are mad at from the people we are afraid of,” says Barrett. “When your prisons are half-filled with non-violent offenders and there is a massive violent crime problem, you are doing it wrong. It’s like trying to run a hospital by allowing patients with broken legs to take up bed space and then wondering why your cardiac outcomes are so poor.”

County jails, especially in less populous areas, are likely to push back on any change in the reimbursement system. For many counties, the jail could be the most costly operation they have. Decision makers could be considering a better assessment of which defendants must be jailed before their court trial and which ones can be released without risking the public’s safety.

The task force will work with the Council of State Governments Justice Center to try and improve Missouri’s criminal justice system. Its report and recommendations are due by December 31.