*This article has been edited and expanded since first publication.*
In 2018, Missourians overwhelmingly voted to legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. This is an important step for the state and will more than likely result in better treatment for many of our friends and neighbors who need to relieve pain, manage nausea and weight loss, and treat glaucoma, among other things.
Next door, Illinois has fully legalized recreational use of marijuana, and Missouri’s legislature is putting a significant amount of its resources into criminal justice reform. These actions cause us to wonder how we can begin to meet the expectations that Governor Parson set during his State of the State address in January when he said that he did not want to open any new prisons and instead wanted to reduce the number of incarcerated individuals in Missouri. This is a laudable and practical goal, since Missouri spends about $60 per day per incarcerated individual. With 28,383 people currently incarcerated, this amounts to about $659,184,405 over the last twelve months. In a state that works exceptionally hard to keep costs low, our over-crowded and expensive penal system is a glaring example of tax-payer dollars wasted.
To relieve these unnecessary costs and begin to create an economy that can support all Missourians, the state legislature must begin to take a more critical look at our criminal justice system and the choices we make when it comes to penalizing individuals for non-violent crimes. Being tough on crime has proven to be a failure, both on the federal and state levels. Rather than making our streets safer, they’ve instead made our streets poorer, our tax burden higher, and many of our families torn apart. Something has to change.
How can we promote smart sentencing in Missouri in order to reduce the number of incarcerated individuals, ease some of the demands our penal system imposes on the state budget, and attain better long-term outcomes?
One of the best laboratories for statewide reform are steps being taken at the municipal level. When local reform is implemented and proven effective, it can serve as a scalable model for the entire state.
When asked about his position on marijuana reform, Quinton Lucas, the Mayor-elect of Kansas City, said that he will use his executive pardon power to “pardon everyone who’s been charged under a municipal marijuana possession offense.” On the eastern side of the state, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner has said that her office would no longer pursue some cases for possession under 100 grams.
Under these two proposals, there could be a significant drop in the amount of non-violent individuals who become a part of our judicial system, which currently has an alarmingly high recidivism rate of 60%. This means that well over half of the people who are jailed once will be jailed again after they’re released. This is an unhealthy and unsustainable model that has led our prisons to be over capacity for the last 5 years. Felony possession of a controlled substance, which includes marijuana, is the #1 reason that individuals are locked up. It is clear that our state legislature needs to truly wrestle with this failed system, and begin to implement changes that can reduce recidivism, take our prisons below their capacity, and lock fewer people up for non-violent crimes.
We look forward to seeing the outcomes of Mayor Lucas’ and Circuit Attorney Gardner’s proposals. Perhaps the results will interest our Governor and General Assembly as a way to reduce the amount we spend on our inefficient penal system. The change could also give our law enforcement officers the ability to focus more of their attention on significant public safety matters.
Empower Missouri advocates for evidence-based public policy solutions that improve the quality of life in every Missouri community. By carefully studying the outcomes in the eleven states where marijuana use is now legal and the reforms being implemented by elected officials in St. Louis and Kansas City, we have an excellent opportunity to find ways to change laws that we know are not working well for us now. Let us not miss this chance to learn.