JEFFERSON CITY - An all-time high of inmates in Missouri still has officials searching for the reason.
The high of 30,720, which has dropped off by 12 inmates since it was announced at the end of September by the Corrections Department, does not worry the department -- officials said they can hold about 500 more prisoners. No matter what, officials say, that they are more than ready to handle the large amount of prisoners.
The Corrections Department has no firm reason why the prison population is so high right now, but Corrections Department spokeswoman Jacqueline Lapine said there some factors that are probably leading to it. The three main reasons, she said, were that more crime is being committed, sentencing has become more stringent and some areas, like St. Louis, have been told to move their cases through the court process faster.
One factor contributing to the high prison population is that the majority of the intakes have been sentenced for a new or first offense, also called new court commitments, with a 39 percent increase since July 1, 2008.
The sentence length tends to be longer for this type of offender. Their average sentence is three years while parole returnees, for example, only average a one-year sentence. There has been only a 5 percent increase of parole violators.
"New court commitments are the biggest cause for an increase in the past year," Lapine said.
These numbers, while high for Missouri, do not pose a problem of early release for some prisoners due to overcrowding, Lapine said.
One Missouri legislator disagreed with the department's claim that high number is "not a problem."
Rep. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, said that Missouri prisons have "severe overcrowding" that creates many problems, such as ones related to safety.
The main problem is that it is harder to manage the large amount of prisoners. Because of that the safety of the prisoners, guards and staff comes into question. "These people have a dangerous enough job as it is, we need to make sure they're safe," Hoskins said.
Hoskin said it is "a problem we have to take in the legislature," and the legislature should look at and further research other options, like private prisons.
Currently there are two private prisons in Missouri, in Holden and Bethany, according to Hoskins, but he said there may need to be more. Hoskins said that creating more private prisons is "a viable option," but first he would like to make sure that the two Missouri has are being utilized efficiently.
Holden is in Hoskins' district.
The two jails house out-of-state and Missouri inmates moved as a result of overcrowding, according to Hoskins and previous MDN reporting.
Another option that could decrease the number going to prison would be alternative sentencing for minor drug offenses, said Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia. "Treatment through drug court is a more cost-effective method for some drug offenders rather than prison," Schaefer said.
Between July 2008 and the record high in September, there has been a 2.3 percent, or a 687 prisoner increase. "We don't view those numbers as a problem even though they are higher than in the past," Lapine said.
Corrections Department Director of Research and Evaluation David Oldfield said the increase from last year is relatively low compared to the past 30 years.
Since last July, there has been a 1.9 prisoner increase per day, he said, but over the last 30 years the average was an increase of more than 2.5 prisoners a day.
"While our numbers are high, and granted it's not a huge spike, we have plenty of room to accommodate those intakes," Lapine said. As of Monday, there were around 500 vacancies for prisoners and an operational capacity of over 1,000. What that means, she said, is that if necessary, certain facilities, such as the womens facility in Chillicothe, can be opened to allow for more prisoners.