Dan Hegeman can recall serving in the Missouri House at a time when the state couldn’t build prisons fast enough.
Now in the Senate, Hegeman sees the pendulum swinging toward sentencing alternatives as lawmakers, even those with a tough-on-crime pedigree, look to reduce a prison population that threatens to consume a growing share of state resources. He served in the House in the 1990s, left state office for a time and was elected to the Senate five years ago.
“In the ’90s we were getting tough on crime,” the Andrew County Republican said. “I will tell you it’s a change that I’ve had to be convinced to give a shot. If we can get people on the straight and narrow, and keep them out of the prisons and make them more productive, we need to try that.”
That new thinking is reflected in a law that could free hundreds of state inmates serving enhanced sentences for repeat, non-violent offenses. House Bill 192, passed in the Republican-majority Legislature, took effect last Wednesday.
It marks a turn away from the “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” legislation that many states pursued to get repeat criminals off the streets. An estimated 200 offenders could be eligible for release in the law’s first year, with that number growing to 925 in year four.
What’s sparked this shift? Part of it is finances. Last year, the Missouri Department of Corrections estimated the state would need to build two new prisons, at a cost of $485 million, without doing something to reduce the inmate population. The state would save around $6 million from the release of 925 offenders.
Part of it was a sense that some of the tougher sentencing laws merely postponed rather than prevented the day when a non-violent offender was released into a community to commit another crime.
“We have discovered that it has not worked the way we had hoped,” said Suzanne Kissock, chair and program director of the legal studies program at Missouri Western State University. “On a long-term basis, incarceration as the sole means of punishment for crime may not be the best way to protect taxpayers and citizens. We need to think creatively to be the most effective at protecting the public.”
The new law doesn’t mean the state has adopted an open-door policy for prisoners, said Adam Albach, legislative liaison with the Missouri Department of Corrections.
The release of 925 inmates would amount to 2 percent of the Department of Corrections adult prison population, as it stood at the end of 2016. The Missouri Board of Probation and Parole would review every case prior to release.
“It will reduce the number of individuals who are in prison,” Albach said. “What Missouri is looking to do in incarcerating is to make sure you use your finite resources for the dangerous criminals.”
Tougher penalties still apply for dangerous felonies, including a requirement that an offender serve 85 percent of a sentence. Offenses that remain ineligible for early release include murder, manslaughter, serious assaults, sex crimes, crimes against children and robbery.
The new law covers low-level property crimes, drug possession and other non-violent offenses that were subject to added time if it was an offender’s second or third trip to prison. Those are the offenders who could be eligible for early release because a mandatory minimum is no longer tacked to the sentence.
The goal is to end the revolving door in and out of prison. It will be key, Kissock said, for the state and local communities to provide services to address root causes of criminal activity, such as poverty.
Otherwise, some fear this initiative could resemble mental hospital de-institutionalization, which succeeded in clearing large state facilities but saddled communities with a variety of problems ranging from drug abuse to homelessness.
Kissock challenged those who haven’t been in prison to consider how hard it would be to restart a career after being away from everything for four or five years.
“It’s incredibly hard for people to reintegrate into society,” she said. “We now understand that re-entry after incarceration is much more difficult than expected. No judge or prosecutor or defense attorney wants a repeat offender. We want a safe community. It’s how we achieve that.”
Hegeman said reducing the prison population makes it easier to find employees for state prison facilities. Staffing issues were one of the factors in the decision to close Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, he said.
For now, Hegeman said he’s keeping an open mind but wouldn’t be surprised to see a turn back toward harsher penalties if the release of some prisoners doesn’t achieve the twin goals of cost savings and safer communities.
“I’m watching this very closely,” he said. “I am being very cautious about it. I would love to see positive results.”