JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (KPLR) - Missouri prosecutors want to separate myth from fact when it comes to the state's prison population. The Missouri Department of Corrections will cost taxpayers almost three quarters of a billion dollars this year, so it may be tempting to ease up on sentencing or let some offenders go. At a news conference in Jefferson City Tuesday, members of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys said that approach will threaten public safety.
The prosecutors at the news conference said there is a myth going around that the state's prisons are full of first-time, non-violent offenders. They say the reality is, only one percent of the state's more than 32,000 prisoners are first-time nonviolent felony offenders.
"My colleagues and I are working hard every single day to make sure that only the people who are repeat and dangerous offenders are generally sent to prison," said Platte Co. Prosecuting Attorney Eric Zahnd.
Prosecutors like St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner say most people are used to seeing her job portrayed in crime shows. Gardner said real-life prosecutors do not want everyone they charge to do serious time.
"I think that more prosecutors across the country see that we have to be tough on crime, but also smart on crime," Gardner said.
Many prosecutors are trying to use alternatives to prison like diversion programs which replace jail time with things like community service and counseling. Several areas of the state have special drug, DWI, mental health and veterans courts. "Shock" time can be used for offenders who violate probation. However, like any government service, these programs cost money.
"I know the state is limited in what they can do, but when we look at the cost-benefit, and the savings the state will save in terms of incarcerating an individual, right now we can incarcerate one individual at about $33,000 per year," Gardner said.
Gardner calls a prison sentence an economic death sentence.
"Give them [offenders] options so that they can be gainfully employed, become taxpaying citizens, to build the communities instead of having this status-quo blanket approach," Gardner said.
Gardner said by offering treatment and other alternatives, it is a front end approach that could save individuals from a life of crime.