Legislative column

An alarming trend is increasing in the Show-Me State: the rate of violent crimes, a rapidly growing female prison population and the overpopulation of prisons and jails driven by recidivism. The female prison population in Missouri has grown more than any other state in the nation over the last several years. Almost 85 percent of people sent to prison in Missouri are remanded due to a revocation resulting from parole violations or for committing another crime upon release. At this rate of growth, with our current prison population, Missouri will have to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in order to house and maintain our increasing prison population. Most importantly, our public safety suffers when these trends continue to rise. I have a keen interest in our prison operations as a result of correctional facilities in the 33rd Senatorial District; located in Fordland and Licking.

Because of these trends, the Missouri State Justice Reinvestment Task Force has worked with stakeholders over the last year to come up with a proposal to reform Missouri’s criminal justice system. That proposal, in the form of Senate Bill 966, will help the state address and reduce recidivism. These provisions will not only produce positive outcomes, but they will also help the state save taxpayer resources.

There is an underlying need to make major changes to Missouri’s criminal justice system. In 2015, Missouri’s index crime rate was the 13th highest in the nation. The total number of reported violent crimes went up by 11 percent between 2010 and 2015. While the total U.S. violent crime rate decreased by 5 percent during this period, the violent crime rate in Missouri increased by 9 percent.

One of the reasons for these increases is the lack of community-based treatment options. Senate Bill 966 allows the Missouri Department of Corrections to establish a community behavioral health program that will coordinate with the Department of Mental Health to provide community-based services for applicable individuals. The Department of Corrections will also develop and utilize a streamlined risk/need assessment tool to evaluate offenders and match them with appropriate services.

These and other provisions in the bill will not only help produce positive outcomes, but they will also help build trust in communities, especially in those communities heavily impacted by crime. They lay the groundwork for future reforms. By addressing the underlying issues, we can reduce recidivism, reduce overcrowding at state prisons and county jails and reduce the high costs Missourians are currently facing to keep these jails operating.

The Senate approved Senate Bill 966 this week and sent it to the House of Representatives for consideration. If we do not do something soon, our state will be on the hook for building and staffing two new prisons in the next five to seven years. This act is the beginning of a new step forward for Missouri’s criminal justice system.

As always, I appreciate it when groups from around Missouri and from our community back home come to visit me at the Capitol. If you would like to arrange a time to come and visit me in Jefferson City, or if you ever have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact my Capitol office at (573) 751-1882.

Mike Cunningham is a Republican member of the Missouri State Senate, representing District 33. Contact him at 573-751-1882 or www.senate.mo.gov/cunningham

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