While crime has dropped across the nation and also in Missouri, our state is one of only eight states in which the prison population has been growing. In fact, we rank #3, and we have been in a nip-and-tuck race with Kentucky to take home the coveted (NOT!) prize for most women being incarcerated.
How did we get here?
We closed mental hospitals and began incarcerating the mentally ill. The Treatment Advocacy Center report on commitment laws counted 356,269 inmates with severe mental illness. This is a problem Medicaid is slowly treating by providing mental health care for people and preventing crime in states that have chosen to improve Medicaid’s income eligibility guidelines. Sadly, Missouri did not choose to follow that path.
A second big cause for the growth of our prison population is mandatory minimums, the so-called “truth in sentencing” or “three strikes and you’re out” policies. Missouri created a dangerous felony category that enhances sentences and also demands longer prison time for repeat offenders, even if offenses are many years apart and non-violent.
Drug offenses have also increased the prison population, of course. The disparity between penalties for possession of powder and crack cocaine has been lessened but it is still a disparity, and the benefits are not retroactive. A much higher penalty for a drug chosen more often by African Americans than European Americans is a classic illustration of how structural racism mutates like a cancer.
The Missouri General Assembly has also criminalized poverty, making it a felony to write a bad check or fail to return rental furniture, even imposing penalties for not paying for “room and board” while incarcerated. These used to be cases for the civil courts, but now criminal law has taken over debt collection.
Empower Missouri has been organizing toward criminal justice reform for decades. We have found sponsors on both sides of the aisle, even recruiting relay teams when needed. For example, Rep. Mike McGee carried a bill to offer older prisoners an opportunity for parole, and then he passed the baton to Rep. Mike Lair (now deceased). Rep. Tom Hannegan is now carrying the bill in the latest lap around the track toward victory.
If we are to win on these important issues, we have to be persistent and organize, year after year. In 2019, we have so many pieces in place that can mean a leap forward: 1) a Governor who says he does not want to build more prisons and supports criminal justice reform; 2) a Speaker of the House who has set up a Special Committee on Criminal Justice Reform; with 3) Rep. Shamed Dogan (R-Ballwin) as chair of that committee, a legislator who has carried some of our priority bills; and 4) the sense of urgency that comes from overcrowded prisons, the threat of litigation, and the nearly half billion dollar price tag that would be generated by building and operating two new prisons, one for men and one for women.
What’s needed to put the POW in emPOWering criminal justice reform? YOU. Your calls, visits, and written communication with legislators can really make a difference. You can testify in hearings – or at least send written statements of your position. You can attend our January 30 Criminal Justice Advocacy Day in Jefferson City, Click HERE for the registration form.
We have convened a Smart Sentencing Coalition, with membership across the ideological spectrum from right to left, and we see sponsors and co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle filing legislation. This will be such an exciting year on this important topic. Don’t miss out. Take action that will matter when our children read the history books. We hope to see you on January 30.
Jeanette Mott Oxford,