The Council of State Governments says Missouri’s rising prison population could be reduced by investing in things that help to keep people out of prison to begin with. It suggests the creation of more community treatment programs and community policing. The council is working with the state to find ways to improve the use of criminal justice system funding.

Missouri Department of Corrections director Anne Precythe

It says creating additional community treatment programs is a better alternative because prison-based ones don’t work. Nearly 90% of Missouri’s 34,000 prisoners require substance abuse treatment. During the work group’s Tuesday meeting in Jefferson City, State Corrections Department Director Anne Precythe tells Missourinet locking up criminals and throwing away the key does not solve the underlying problems.

“I think where we’ve emerged today is that we really understand it’s a much larger community issue and that it involves so many different players,” says Precythe. “If you can find the root of why the behavior is occurring, you can have a greater impact on changing that behavior.”

Precythe says people with substance abuse and mental health issues are not a lost cause and should be helped so they don’t end up in prison.

“People who suffer from mental illness oftentimes are stable and can function day to day but then they fall into crisis,” says Precythe. “When they fall into crisis, their needs and their reason become very different than what people who don’t experience mental illness understand or can even explain. The fact that we know we’re dealing with someone who’s in mental health crisis or has a mental health illness better prepares us to be able to focus on what’s important for that person – not so much conditions of supervision imposed by a controlling authority.”

She says the focus then shifts to learning whether they are taking their medications, going to treatment, their transportation needs and how their support system is helping or not helping.

According to Precythe, avoiding the construction of additional prisons would save Missouri taxpayers about $175 million per prison and $27 million annually to operate per institution.

“We should be asking for dollars to reduce beds in prison and enhance services available in the community because that’s where we’ll have a bigger bang for the buck,” says Precythe.

From 2013 to 2016, Missouri’s number of violent crimes reported climbed 20%. The council says it’s clear that law enforcement is overwhelmed with handling substance abuse and mental health issues and is not able to fight enough violent crimes. It says “Missouri cannot continue to arrest its way out of violence.”

The council also says the number of violent crimes reported in Missouri outweighs violent crime arrests by about 30% – leading people to think they won’t get caught. This is where things like law enforcement deterrence of criminal activity and probation and parole community supervision enhancements can come into play.

Missouri has the fastest growing female prison population in the country. Data gathering shows that women are not given as many chances as their male counterparts when deciding whether to send them to prison. The issue does not appear to be in certain cities. Rather, the phenomenon seems to exist statewide.

Gender-specific community treatment is a way this can be addressed, according to the council. It also says there are federal resources available that the state could tap into to help make many of these suggestions a reality.