Columbia College hosts panel on criminal justice reform

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COLUMBIA – The Show-Me Institute held “Behind Bars in Missouri” Tuesday night at Columbia College, discussing the cost of criminal reform and whether it is worth the current price.

Five panelists from criminal law, economic and government backgrounds talked about Missouri’s struggles with criminal justice, incarceration and costs to the public.

State Treasurer and former Senator Eric Schmitt said he found out some St. Louis suburban police precincts had ticket and arrest quotas. He said the Missouri legislature made reforms in 2015 to cap the revenue raised from tickets and said there needs to be a better way for localities to generate income.

“We do not want to see people using people as ATMs,” Schmitt said. “Government doesn’t exist to find new and innovative ways to extract more and more from people.”

Attorney Jennifer Bukowsky said taxpayer spending on the criminal justice system has increased 70 percent in the past two decades. 

“Every dollar that we spend on incarceration or on the criminal justice system is one less dollar we have available for higher education, for pre-K education, for potholes, for everything,” Bukowsky said. “We need to look at whether we’re getting the best return on our investment for the taxpayer dollar.

Economics professor Aaron Hedlund said businesses are skeptical of hiring people with criminal records because the employer could be sued for negligent hire.

“What we could do instead is we could have some kind of certificates that the government would issue for people who have gone through the prison system, shown good behavior, been through programs, et cetera, to say this is someone who is an employable person and something that basically reduces some of the liability an employer would have,” Hedlund said.

About 33,000 people were incarcerated in June 2016, up about 2,000 from 2011, according to a report by the Missouri Department of Corrections. Missouri has the eighth highest incarceration rate in the country, with 530 incarcerated per 100,000 people as of 2015, according to the National Institute of Corrections.

More than 8,500 people in prison are there for nonviolent crimes and more than 6,300 are for drug offenses, both groups showing the highest rate of growth since 2011.

The crime rate in Missouri for 2015 was 18 percent higher than the national average rate, according to the National Institute of Corrections. Taxpayers paid more than $22,000 per inmate in 2012, about $10,000 less than the national average.