Missouri's prison population totals around 28,600 prisoners on any given day and by all measure, the population would grow substantially if more prison cells were available. That, I guess, is both good and bad news. But for taxpayers the swelling prison population is a serious problem that will not get any better in the short run. The long run doesn't bode too well either.
There are two factors, I believe, that have created this problem. First, drug offenders have pushed the prison population to new levels. There's no need to discuss the dismal failures of our war on drugs but the fact is that drug crimes account for an overwhelming percentage of the prison population. And secondly, Missouri is among the toughest states in the nation in terms of prisoners spending a larger amount of their sentence behind bars.
Put these two factors together and you have the formula for a disaster. We're there already.
For three years now, Sen. Harold Caskey, D-Butler, has proposed providing shorter sentences and alternative punishments for nonviolent offenders. Though the details of his bill are not yet clear in my mind, Caskey may indeed have a point.
Our tough approach to crime is the best approach. Criminals should know that they will not be treated lightly in the Missouri judicial system. And I believe that should apply to drug sales regardless of the nonviolent nature of the crime.
But perhaps there are other offenses where some alternative form of punishment would work better. Caskey says his approach would make room for 3,500 more violent offenders which make up 45 percent of the prison population. Maybe he's right.
Then-Gov. Mel Carnahan vetoed Caskey's bill back in '99 but we're facing a different problem today than we were then.
Soon we'll simply be unable to build enough jail cells to house all of those sentenced and that may well mean releasing some violent criminals before their full term has been served. That is unacceptable.
Prison reform is not a highly popular topic because the vast majority of the population believes that segment of society is getting exactly what they deserve. That's true. But given a choice between breaking the back of taxpayers or mandating some alternative form of punishment for nonviolent criminals, I think the time has come to think creatively.