The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Plata last week has made ripples across the nation. States are looking carefully at their prison systems and noticing many of the same problems that caused the Court to rebuke California’s system. In short, a philosophy that treats incarceration as a sensible solution for both violent and non-violent offenders – without considering that non-violent offenders may be better served by community supervision alternatives – is causing needless prison overcrowding and providing no discernible benefit to public safety. According to a recent editorial in St. Louis Today, Missouri is one of the states that is beginning to notice that this “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” approach to criminal justice is not keeping its citizenry any safer, and it is starting to look at alternatives.
According to the Missouri Sentencing Advisory Committee (MOSAC), the state actually has a higher incarceration rate than even California’s, but Missouri is wisely taking steps to avoid the California problem by paroling a sizable number of nonviolent offenders. The Chief Justice of Missouri, William Ray Price, Jr., recently called for a “smart on crime” policy. His comments focused particularly on the distinction between violent and nonviolent offenders: “Nonviolent offenders need to learn their lesson [but]…putting them in a very expensive concrete box with very expensive guards…does not work. Proof is in the numbers: 41.6% are back within two years.”
The Chief Justice called for Missouri to “move from anger-based sentencing that ignores cost and effectiveness to evidence-based sentencing that focuses on results – sentencing that assesses each offender’s risk and then fits that offender with the cheapest and most effective rehabilitation that he or she needs.” He continued by noting that “states across the nation are moving in this direction because they cannot afford such a great waste of resources. Missouri must move in this direction too.”
Brown v. Plata is a controversial decision, the full ramifications of which remain to be seen. But we can take some solace in knowing that the court has designated California as an example of how not to run a prison system, and the rest of the country is catching on and taking action to avoid judicial intervention.