The Conservative Case Against More Prisons

Our policy experts Vikrant Reddy and Marc Levin wrote an excellent piece recently for The American Conservative magazine. It’s entitled, “The Conservative Case Against More Prisons” and appeared in the latest issue of the magazine.

Here is an excerpt:

There are other ways to hold offenders—particularly nonviolent ones—accountable. These alternatives when properly implemented can lead to greater public safety and increase the likelihood that victims of crime will receive restitution. The alternatives are also less costly. Prisons are expensive (in some states, the cost of incarcerating an inmate for one year approaches $60,000), and just as policymakers should scrutinize government expenditures on social programs and demand accountability, they should do the same when it comes to prison spending. None of this means making excuses for criminal behavior; it simply means “thinking outside the cell” when it comes to punishment and accountability.


Missouri Employs Families to Combat Delinquency

The juvenile justice system, in a sense, functions to replace a core family function: discipline of a child. While this is an important governmental role in some cases, it is necessary to ensure that families are not unnecessarily displaced, and in fact included in juvenile justice to the highest degree possible.

This is why family based juvenile justice programs often are very successful. Such programs return parents to their natural role of disciplinarian, and ensure that parents and youths are able to move forward with as little state involvement as possible.

Jackson County, Missouri, has adopted this precept with their Family Court program. The Family Court uses Parenting with Love and Limits theories, which seek to arm parents with the tools they need to discipline and control youths at home, and avoid placement in a secure facility.

Thirty-six families each year engage in eight weeks of home and group sessions that involve coaching parents through proper discipline, rewards, and punishments, as well as behavior contracts that strictly delineate proper boundaries for youth behavior.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation discussed the positive outcomes of Parenting with Love and Limits in the reentry setting earlier this year; the family focus used to avoid secure confinement in Missouri can similarly set juveniles on the path to law-abiding lives and positive family relationships.


Missouri’s Successful Drug Courts

This month, Judge Molly Merrigan’s drug court in Kansas City, Missouri was named one of the best in the nation by the advocacy group Children and Family Futures. The Kansas City Star explains that “Merrigan’s court was one of the first to take the now-familiar drug court treatment model and adapt it to the wrenching context of child abuse and neglect. Substance abusing parents on the verge of losing their children because of complaints of abuse or neglect must complete a rigorous program of drug and alcohol treatment and frequent testing to assure Merrigan that she can safely reunite the parents with their kids.”

Judge Merrigan’s court is indeed a national model, but are so are several other drug courts in Missouri, the state with the highest number of methamphetamine lab incidents. Drug court participants in Missouri have only a 35% recidivism rate, far better than the control group rate of 50%.

Missouri's Successful Drug Courts


Criminal Justice System Reforms Advance in MO, OK, and WV

Three states considering sentencing and system reform to save their states millions while creating more effective criminal justice policies have advanced legislation to that end, and one group—the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center—is common to each effort.

The Justice Center had previously aided Texas’ criminal justice reform efforts, along with the Center for Effective Justice (which created Right on Crime). The resulting billion-dollar savings, as a result of avoided prison bed construction due to more efficient substance abuse policies, has spurred similar efforts in other states.

In Missouri, legislation is advancing that is the result of the Justice Center’s advice and research. Those bills, which involve swift and sure sanctions as in West Virginia and shock probation, debuted to strong bipartisan support in that state.

In Oklahoma, legislators in the House approved a bill which would provide supervision for ex-inmates, good-time credits for those felons which have served 85 percent of their sentence and who are approved by corrections officials, and emphasizes testing for drug abuse and mental health issues in defendants, legislation introduced after Justice Center research in that state.

In West Virginia, legislators approved increasing drug treatment programming, swift and sure parole and probation sanctions (which have proven to be more effective than standard revocations to incarceration). That bill now moves on for consideration by the full House; as Right on Crime previously noted, this legislation may only be the first step in a series of reform efforts, as the Governor recently invited the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center to advise the state on reform.

Research-based legislative efforts to make criminal justice systems more effective and efficient with taxpayer dollars are quickly becoming the trend across the United States, and West Virginia seeks to benefit from this body of knowledge as well.


Missouri Chief Justice Urges Systematic Changes

In September, Right on Crime noted the work of a Missouri task force studying sentencing reform. The task force recommended, among other things, shortening probation and parole terms and implementing a system of swift and sure sanctions for violations.

The Chief Justice of Missouri’s Supreme Court, Richard Teitelman, last week urged policymakers to consider and pass the changes in his annual State of the Judiciary address. The changes would provide reductions not only in prison populations (which would reduce the need for costly prison construction), but also in up-front state expenditures.

Missouri is fortunate that all three branches of its government are working for comprehensive criminal justice reform. The attention from the chief justice indicates the significance that the issue currently carries in the state.


More Reform Efforts in Missouri

Missouri has formed a new task force to improve the effectiveness of their criminal justice system while reducing costs to taxpayers. Specifically, the Missouri Working Group on Sentencing and Corrections is studying diversions from incarceration that avoid the high costs of residential treatment.

The group, which brings together Republicans and Democrats, and elected officials and state agencies, recognizes that there are certain segments of the adult offender population for whom incarceration is required. However, for lower risk offenders, such as first-time, non-violent offenders, there are alternatives to incarceration which are more effective and do not squeeze tight state budgets as much.

Right on Crime has long been an advocate for alternatives to incarceration. In Texas, for example, the introduction of probation as an alternative to incarceration has drastically reduced costs, crime, and recidivism. As the Missouri work group plans to propose legislative reforms in 2012, Right on Crime applauds their efforts and hopes that effective and efficient reform is the result.


Criminal Penalties for Facebooking in Missouri

Missouri Senate Bill 54, aka the Student Protection Act, seeks to combat inappropriate student-teacher contact.  According to a recent ZDNet article, the legislation increases penalties for failure to report sexual abuse of students, but it also criminalizes student-teacher contact on social networking sites such as Facebook.

Section 162.069 of the bill details the social networking provision:

“Teachers cannot establish, maintain, or use a work-related website unless it is available to school administrators and the child’s legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian. Teachers also cannot have a nonwork-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student.”

The wording of the legislation implies that a teacher may be allowed to have a work-related Facebook page, but any connection that goes beyond “work-related” will be impermissible.

The last clause of the law, which criminalizes contact between teachers and their former students, particularly ought to concern anybody worried about overcrminalization.  To put it in perspective, two years after I graduated from high school, when I was twenty years old, my junior high choir director added me on Facebook.  He was a fantastic mentor, a great teacher, and a character reference that I list on applications to this day.  In Missouri, he would be criminally liable

State Governor Jay Nixon signed the bill this week, which will go into effect at the end of August.  The enforcement provisions have not been laid out yet.


Missouri is Taking Steps to Avoid Its Own Brown v. Plata

The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Plata last week has made ripples across the nation. States are looking carefully at their prison systems and noticing many of the same problems that caused the Court to rebuke California’s system.  In short, a philosophy that treats incarceration as a sensible solution for both violent and non-violent offenders – without considering that non-violent offenders may be better served by community supervision alternatives – is causing needless prison overcrowding and providing no discernible benefit to public safety.  According to a recent editorial in St. Louis Today, Missouri is one of the states that is beginning to notice that this “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” approach to criminal justice is not keeping its citizenry any safer, and it is starting to look at alternatives.

According to the Missouri Sentencing Advisory Committee (MOSAC), the state actually has a higher incarceration rate than even California’s, but Missouri is wisely taking steps to avoid the California problem by paroling a sizable number of nonviolent offenders.  The Chief Justice of Missouri, William Ray Price, Jr., recently called for a “smart on crime” policy.  His comments focused particularly on the distinction between violent and nonviolent offenders: “Nonviolent offenders need to learn their lesson [but]…putting them in a very expensive concrete box with very expensive guards…does not work.  Proof is in the numbers: 41.6% are back within two years.”

The Chief Justice called for Missouri to “move from anger-based sentencing that ignores cost and effectiveness to evidence-based sentencing that focuses on results – sentencing that assesses each offender’s risk and then fits that offender with the cheapest and most effective rehabilitation that he or she needs.”  He continued by noting that “states across the nation are moving in this direction because they cannot afford such a great waste of resources.  Missouri must move in this direction too.”

Brown v. Plata is a controversial decision, the full ramifications of which remain to be seen.  But we can take some solace in knowing that the court has designated California as an example of how not to run a prison system, and the rest of the country is catching on and taking action to avoid judicial intervention.


Missouri is Informing Judges about the Costs of Sentences

Missouri is now providing its judges with a “Sentencing Assessment Report” (SAR), a document which informs the judge of the cost of the sentence that he or she will imminently deliver.  A recent New York Times article explains how it works:

“For someone convicted of endangering the welfare of a child, for instance, a judge might now learn that a three-year prison sentence would run more than $37,000 while probation would cost $6,770.  A second-degree robber, a judge could be told, would carry a price tag of less than $9,000 for five years of intensive probation, but more than $50,000 for a comparable prison sentence and parole afterward. The bill for a murderer’s 30-year prison term: $504,690.”

Missouri’s SARs may or may not be a good idea — but they are certainly a controversial idea: “The practice has touched off a sharp debate. It has been lauded nationally by a disparate group of defense lawyers and fiscal conservatives, who consider it an overdue tool that will force judges to ponder alternatives to prison more seriously.  But critics — prosecutors especially — dismiss the idea as unseemly. They say that the cost of punishment is an irrelevant consideration when deciding a criminal’s fate and that there is a risk of overlooking the larger social costs of crime.”