The Missouri Department of Corrections ranked Buchanan County’s incarceration rate as the 17th highest in the state in 2018.
With 834 people behind bars for various felony offenses, Buchanan County’s population-adjusted rate trailed St. Louis city but was higher than what was found in Jackson County. In terms of total new prison sentences, Buchanan County was sixth in the state, behind only St. Louis city, St. Louis County, St. Charles County, Greene County and Jackson County.
These are just felony cases, so maybe public defenders make a decent case that their office deserves more resources to provide a legal defense to those who can’t afford an attorney.
What’s more shocking than talk of overwhelmed attorneys is word about one of the driving forces behind the busy caseload in Buchanan County. When it comes to felony nonsupport cases, Buchanan County surges past nearly everyone except St. Louis County.
Five years ago, Buchanan County filed 353 felony cases for failing to pay child support. St. Louis County, with a much larger population, filed 411 that year.
An observer could look at this as a Sixth Amendment issue because everyone is entitled to a fair shot in court. But these numbers point to something far more significant than the need for more attorneys.
The high rate of felony nonsupport — those who are 12 months or more in arrears on payments — portends a difficult uphill struggle for too many of Buchanan County’s children. To be fair, we all know the single mom whose tenacity and dedication overcomes the odds and puts her children on a path to success.
But those are individual stories. In the aggregate, children with financial support from only one parent are more likely to need public assistance and fall behind in school. This has significant repercussions for St. Joseph’s economy and quality of life in future years.
Nationwide, inflation-adjusted wages remained flat for more than three decades, but the trend was easy to ignore because women entered the workforce in large numbers at the same time, blunting much of the impact. But if you take away that second income, a single-wage earner quickly feels the squeeze, especially with mouths to feed and no financial support for children.
One could argue that St. Joseph’s higher-than-average rate of poverty isn’t just due to education and wage levels. It’s a result of households that lack two-parent support. This needs to be viewed not as a moral issue, and not only as a legal issue, but as a critical economic challenge.
Everyone deserves their day in court, but even more than that, every child deserves full financial and emotional backing. That should be the primary focus of this debate.