This sign points the way to the neighboring Western Missouri Correctional Center and Crossroads Correctional Center, both in Cameron, Missouri. The state went on a prison-building spree in the 1990s but is now looking at a community-based approach to preventing repeat offenses.

Buchanan County could see an influx of prison offenders released into the community as state officials respond to what’s been described as a crisis of rising inmate populations and increased opioid use throughout society.

Boone, Butler and Buchanan counties will test a new effort to release offenders back into the community with specific services designed to meet each offender’s needs.

“The state’s current systems has come to a “make-or-break” time when critical changes are necessary to reduce its prison population,” said Andrew Barbee, research director of the Council of State Government’s Justice Center.

The only other option is to spend $485 million to build and operate two new prisons, says Anne Precythe, director of the Missouri Department of Corrections.

Precythe doesn’t believe more prisons are the solution.

“Prisoners are never going to get all they need in our institutions,” Precythe said.

Missouri’s rate of violent crime is on the rise and above the national average, according to the Council of State Governments Justice Center. In addition, mental health issues and opioid drug addiction have become a distraction for Missouri law enforcement officers.

The state is finding it can’t incarcerate itself out of the rising crime statistics. That is leading some to advocate “community-focused” treatment, as opposed to a criminal justice system that focuses solely on incarceration.

Toward that end, the legislature approved $5 million in the recently passed budget for the three-county test project.

“The most effective interventions for criminal justice populations are community-based, individualized, comprehensive and include services at varying levels of intensity,” Barbee said.

In St. Joseph, Family Guidance Center got information last week that the agency can submit a bid by the end of June, but it will be expected to begin providing new services to offenders in September.

“We want to cooperate and be successful,” said Garry Hammond, the president and chief executive officer for Family Guidance.

Both Precythe and Hammond say the program will only receive prisoners from the Buchanan County area.

“This program will amount to between 200 and 300 offenders annually with opioid addiction and mild to moderate mental health issues,” Hammond said. “We will only take people based on our capacity to provide the services. Persons may have to be placed on a waiting list if the right services can’t be provided.”

The effort seeks to provide former inmates with stable living environments and programs to help them build new lives not involving their old behaviors, which put them on the path to prison, Precythe said.

Housing will be the biggest challenge, Hammond said. All prison referrals will be reviewed by Family Guidance, state probation officials and the St. Joseph Police Department.

Part of the changes necessary to provide the Corrections Department with authority to conduct this effort were included in House Bill 1355, an omnibus crime bill, passed in the final days of the legislative session.

“This was an omnibus crime bill with the House putting everything in that bill,” said Rep. Pat Conway, D-St. Joseph.

The bill, if signed by the governor, requires the Department of Corrections to establish a community behavioral health program by collaborating with the Missouri Department of Mental Health. The bill authorizes community supervision centers, like the one in St. Joseph, to respond to probation or parole violations and prevent revocations, which could mean more prison time for an offender.

Precythe said she made a point to reach out to other legislators in St. Joseph.

In the late 20th century, Missouri expanded prison capacity to include a new men’s prison in St. Joseph, a new and larger women’s prison in Chillicothe and two new prisons in Cameron.

Now, Missouri is operating 21 adult facilities and prisons at 105 percent of capacity. With more than 32,000 inmates, Missouri’s prison population is the eighth largest in all 50 states. The women’s prison population is the fastest growing in the entire nation.

Marshall White can be reached at marshall.white@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPWhite.