Missouri’s County Jail Populations Climb by 50% in Seven Years

Missouri Net

By Alisa Nelson

Missouri’s county jail admissions have been relatively flat since 2010 but jail populations have climbed by 50% since then, according to the Council of State Government’s Justice Center (CSG). The organization is working with Missouri to find ways to make better use of resources for the state’s criminal justice system.

The length of stay of each offender is a major contributor to today’s rising jail populations in Missouri. The CSG’s research says Missourians in jail for felonies spend an average of 191 days behind bars before they’re sentenced.

The Missouri Public Defender System has been woefully underfunded and has lacked attorneys for years. Public defenders lack the time to adequately manage their cases, often leading to their clients spending additional time in jail. They seek extensions that end up dragging out their cases because they need more time to review them. When a defendant’s day in court arrives, the lack of time invested in the case by the public defender ultimately costs many offenders their freedom.

The CSG says ticketing instead of arrest for high volume, low severity offenses for those that do not pose a flight risk can free up law enforcement time and jail space. Citations save about an hour in processing time per incident.

The International Association of Police Chiefs say law enforcement agencies are using citation for nearly one-third of the following incidents: disorderly conduct, theft, trespassing, driver under suspension and possession of marijuana. Two-thirds of officers surveyed support cite and release.

The CSG also recommends using a statewide system to assess offenders who are at low flight risk and should be released before their trial. It says people who are at low risk to public safety are likely to show up for future court dates and should not spend time in jail waiting for their hearings.

Missouri’s county jail populations, of course, ultimately have an impact on the state’s prison system. The state has about 34,000 prisoners – making it the eighth-highest incarceration rate in the nation. Since 2010, the Missouri’s female prison population has increased 33% and is the fastest growing in the nation.

The state continues to hold a $19 million deficit and is running about six months behind on its auditing process for county jail subsidies. Missouri could be one of the only states in the nation that reimburses county jails for a defendant’s entire incarceration if an offender goes to state prison.

The CSG’s research finds that an area of consensus on Missouri’s jail payment system is that nobody is a fan of the current approach. The current system requires counties to bill the state, spend staff time figuring those costs and waiting months to be reimbursed.

The task force is considering whether to reimburse counties a specific amount of money each year to put that funding toward implementing things like a diversion program, electronic monitoring and mental illness and substance misuse services.

Missouri Department of Corrections Director Ann Precythe says the current system set up is “feeding the beast, not taming the beast.” She says the infrastructure for a lot of what state needs to happen in the criminal justice system is here but resources need to be redirected.

“I think it will be a challenge because it’s going to be about getting people out of their comfort zone for what they’ve always done, for what they know and challenging them to want to step out there and figure out how can we do things that have more meaning than what we’re doing now,” says Precythe. “I think people work very hard now. There’s no doubt about that but could we work smarter and not harder. I think that’s kind of the motto we have to approach as we talk about this.”

The task force is also considering whether to move away from a paper system for its jail subsidy process and instead apply an electronic format to help reduce errors and delays in payments.

The CSG says about 85% of people in jail and prison are substance use dependent. The task force has a meeting scheduled for Dec. 13 to discuss the role that mental health services play in the overall scope of the criminal justice system.

It must submit its recommendations to Governor Eric Greitens by Dec. 31.