In a letter distributed to local judges from the Department of Corrections (DOC), director Anne Precythe announced that in an effort to curtail state prison population growth, funding will be rediverted to community-based drug recovery support services that “provide an alternative to costly incarceration and is more effective in delivering improved outcomes for offenders.”

“This is going to affect us,” said Dent County Prosecutor Andrew Curley. “A lot has changed in the eight years since I came back.  We see a lot less recommendations from Probation and Parole for incarceration, especially in drug-related cases. In addition, now we have the Department of Corrections reducing their institutional treatment function, which will even further reduce available treatment options.”

Under current population trends, DOC will be more than 2,300 prison beds short of needed capacity by the end of fiscal year 2021. Precythe stated that this would necessitate the construction of two new prisons. This reinvestment of funding would, as Precythe states, potentially avoid expenditures of over $400 million.

"Allegedly, the State will be taking funds from (DOC) and putting them into local drug treatment community resources, but I don't think anyone knows what that means yet as to money or resources,” said Associate Circuit Judge Brandi Baird.  "We just want to know how much of that funding will be coming to Dent County and in what capacity.  On previous occasions the share we, Dent County, have received is lessened based on the numbers of person supervised by Board of Probation/Parole here compared to the larger cities.  We are just going to have to wait and see what they decide because so far we have not seen any plans."

In numbers cited by Precythe, 86 percent of prison admissions are tied to failures of people on community supervision or sentence to prison-based substance abuse or mental health treatment. She continues by writing, “Timely access to effective community treatment has the potential to reduce both types of prison admission and is more cost effective.”

“Let’s think about this conceptually. When a criminal case is filed that state is a party, the defendant is a party and there’s a few other entities that are parties that can be subjected to court orders, such as DOC and Department of Mental Health,” Curley said. “A judge can order those parties to do or not do certain things. Private treatment centers are not part of that plan. We can't make them do anything in a criminal case. A judge cannot tell SEMO (Southeast Missouri Behavioral Health) to admit Joe Narco in for treatment. The defendant can come up with a plan that (involves) SEMO, and we can agree that successful completion of the program is a term of their probation, but the defendant has to set that up. A serious problem arises when the defendant can’t get admitted into a treatment program and is also not sentenced to the prison treatment program. They still receive probation, but the primary issue is not being actively addressed. The treatment program in DOC is often utilized when the defendant cannot get admitted to a treatment facility due to overcapacity issues, and that option is now being cut by an estimated 25 percent.”

“Think of someone who is waitlisted at SEMO, and they don’t have enough money or insurance to go get treated somewhere else,” Curley said. “Some are out on the streets committing crimes, doing the things we don’t want them to do. We can’t get them into a program, they can’t get themselves into a program, the jails are overcrowded, what as a prosecutor do I have available to me? We currently don’t have a jail that is engineered to address addiction. We can’t even segregate inmates to get substance abuse professionals or counselors in there so that they can meet with inmates to begin addressing the issue.”

Curley gave a real-life example of imagining 50 offenders with oncoming sentences for crimes. With 25 percent of those inmates no longer being able to be treated at the DoC, those inmates would now be subject to shock time in an already overcrowded jail with limited treatment options or other sentencing methods.

With even less options on the table now for programs for drug offenders, Curley stated that his options are reduced even more with this decision by DOC.

“Part of our issue is our jails are full and we only have a couple treatment providers in the area. Where else are we going to send someone? Nowhere,” Curley said. “DOC is resistant to taking them and parole eligibility rates are extremely low (meaning non-violent offenders are frequently released early). When it comes to the war on drugs, the message from DOC is clear; ‘Deal with it yourself, community.”’

Baird explained one of her concerns with this announcement is the idea of more inmates locally in the new jail project, a bigger facility than what is being utilized currently but now at a greater risk for overcrowding again as trends will go up with shock time and incarceration numbers instead of treatment.

“When I talked to the jail board recently I told them ‘You are building the new jail on the current numbers, but the trends the state is currently looking at will not be the trends in the next few years,” Baird said.

Effective July 1, the DOC budget for institutional substance use disorders treatment was reduced by over $1 million, cutting available beds by 13 percent. Those impacted were transitioned into alternative programs in the department.

“Assets are being diverted from incarceration based programs. So, instead of building a new prison, money is supposed to be coming down at the community level. I am skeptical as to how much value our rural community will receive” Curley said.

“When I talked to the jail board recently I told them ‘You are building the new jail on the current numbers, but the trends the state is currently looking at will not be the trends in the next few years,” Baird said.

 “Per capita, we are one of the most incarcerated countries in the world,” Curley said. “Rates have continued to rise, along with the death toll since the early 80’s. Historically, we used an approach that emphasized incarceration and here we are almost 40 years later and, as a country, we are worse off than when we started. The recent decision by DOC announces another step away from incarceration as a tool to address substance abuse.”