The Associated Press
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan. 28
More reforms needed to fix Missouri’s criminal justice system
County sheriffs are planning to be back in the Missouri Capitol this year waging a decade-old battle. They want the state to properly reimburse county jails for housing state prisoners.
The sheriffs are correct when arguing that they’re getting a raw deal. State law calls for a reimbursement of $37.50 per day for prisoners facing state charges but being housed in county jails, which is where most accused felons spend their time while awaiting trial. The Legislature, though, never actually appropriates that much. This year sheriffs have to get by on less than $20 a day. It’s why many of them pad their bottom lines by agreeing to hold federal prisoners, who are reimbursed to the tune of $75 a day.
The problem, though, is much deeper than a mere financial transaction.
It’s that all the government players — the sheriffs, prosecutors, county commissioners and state lawmakers — are gaming the system because all of the incentives are in the wrong places.
Let’s say Joe Sixpack gets picked up on a breaking-and-entering charge. Odds are he was looking for cash to feed his meth habit. Or maybe he had a little marijuana in his car. The county sheriff or municipal police department is going to load him up on state charges. Why?
Because if Mr. Sixpack just faces city or county charges, there is no state reimbursement. Also, state sentences tend to be tougher, so the prosecutor can pad his tough-on-crime statistics. And the county commission, meanwhile, needs to justify its decision to ask voters for a tax hike for a new jail, so a little overcrowding wouldn’t hurt. Just don’t mention to the voters that half the jail is filled with federal prisoners from three counties away.
The end game is what has happened to Missouri.
The Department of Corrections budget is bloated. Prisons are full. There’s no money for education, health care or roads. Oh, and that meth problem? Blame it on Sudafed.
Missouri is not unique in this regard. The Pew Center for the States has been funding a corrections reform agenda across the country based on empirical research showing that there is a better way to deal with crime.
Last year, in a rare moment of bipartisanship, the Missouri Legislature took the first step toward implementing such reform, passing legislation that will begin to address the problem county sheriffs are still complaining about today.
House Bill 1525, sponsored by former Rep. Gary Fuhr, R-St. Louis County, gives counties more control over probation and parole, ultimately creating an atmosphere in which some nonviolent offenders are steered away from the state prison system. While a step in the right direction, the bill fell far short of Pew-supported efforts in other states, including neighboring Kentucky, where lawmakers passed legislation intended to reduce the prison population by 3,000 prisoners over a decade.
Missouri lawmakers should take the second step this year and rewrite its criminal code, reducing penalties for some crimes, streamlining the code so it’s easier for prosecutors and police to use, and keeping their eyes on the ultimate prize: fixing the system so in the long run prison populations drop.
“Instead of each level of government trying to take advantage of each other, they all should be focused on reducing the number of nonviolent offenders in jail,” suggests former Missouri Supreme Court Justice William Ray Price Jr., who was a major force behind the Pew reform effort last year.
The sheriffs aren’t wrong to ask for fair funding, but they would be better off pushing lawmakers to reform the system. Missouri needs to spend more time making sure drug-and-alcohol addicts get treated by funding drug treatment courts. It needs to streamline its system so that nonviolent offenders don’t soak up resources that could be better spent elsewhere.
The path to a system that makes financial sense for Missouri counties is one in which there are fewer people in the prison pipeline. Making progress on last year’s Pew-inspired baby steps should be a legislative priority.
The Kansas City Star, Jan. 27
Keep the health care promises
The 2003 sale of the former Health Midwest hospital network to the out-of-town Hospital Corp. of America was a drawn-out, contentious process.
Thirteen hospitals in the Kansas City region were involved, and people understandably worried that the transfer of nonprofit community assets to a for-profit owner would result in weakened connections and diminished charity care.
Based on a judge’s ruling this week, those concerns were well-founded.
Jackson County Circuit Judge John Torrence awarded a $162 million judgment against HCA to the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City. The foundation contended the for-profit hospital owner failed to pay for capital improvements to the former Health Midwest hospitals, as it had agreed to in the terms of the sale, and also may have dodged its full commitment to help with charitable care.
Though HCA says it plans to appeal the ruling, the Health Care Foundation, which was created under the terms of the sale, deserves congratulations for its vigilance. Its board and staff never took their eyes off a core principle spelled out in the transaction — that the community as a whole, and indigent patients in particular, should not be abandoned.
Under the sale agreement, Health Midwest, which changed its name to Community Health Group in 2003, was intended to be the front-line watchdog to see that HCA met its obligations. Unfortunately, the legal case so far suggests it has been ineffective in that role. That may also be so of the Missouri and Kansas attorney general offices, which reviewed the Community Health Group’s work annually. In future complex agreements of this sort, care should be taken to create more of a separation between the designated watchdogs and the people being watched.
A Kansas foundation also created by the sale, Reach Healthcare Foundation, disappointingly declined to join the Health Care Foundation in its legal action.
The trend in health care is toward consolidation. We are likely to see more mergers and sales in which large, out-of-town corporate entities gain control over what are intended to be community assets. Sound agreements, and the sort of vigilance that the Health Care Foundation has provided, are essential going forward.
Columbia Daily Tribune, Jan. 25
A nice bit of bipartisanship
For years state legislators have been contemplating a large bond issue to fund construction projects. As the new legislative session gets under way, the inevitable challenge arises once again: how to translate a good idea into a working plan.
On Wednesday, House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, gave the answer. He and fellow GOP leaders will team with Rep. Chris Kelly, the Democrat from Boone, to push the $950 million project Kelly calls perhaps “the biggest jobs program in Missouri history.” Jones named Kelly chairman of a new committee to work on details.
Kelly has been working for a state bond issue since returning to the House in 2009. The crucial development this year is Jones’ co-sponsorship.
The time is right. Borrowing and construction costs remain low, and last October the state finished paying off a $600 million bond issue approved in 1982, making room in the budget for another round of financing.
Kelly and his committee will have to make a list from a large backlog of building needs and also include some funding for transportation, but projects will extend across the state and should receive wide support.
Jones’ support is crucial. A Republican majority refusing to consider any sort of public funding would have killed the bond plan. With GOP support, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce quickly came on board.
As a member of the minority, Kelly has had to perfect the art of working with Republicans. This is the latest and best example of what it takes, and Republicans deserve credit. Without Jones & Co., the bond idea would remain an idle dream.
Now, Republican officeholders are in a position to urge their supporters from every corner of the state to vote for a plan to build neglected infrastructure. This is important.
The Joplin Globe, Jan. 25
Missouri Sens. Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt are now both members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
We encourage them to speak out to their Missouri constituents on how our national security needs should be funded in the coming years.
Today our military reach is still global in nature. Must it continue to be such a force structure in the future? That is the fundamental decision to be made today.
Few would argue, we hope, that preventing a nuclear exchange in the future through nuclear deterrence remains our first and vital priority in matters of national security.
Maintaining freedom of the seas is our next priority. Ships of all nations must continue to be able to navigate in all international waters anywhere in the world. We must have the sea power to ensure such remains a constant for the coming decades. Ninety percent of all world trade goes by sea, and that is not going to change in the near future.
Those two objectives are expensive, particularly if we must fund such forces by ourselves. But we know of no other nations willing and able to bear their share of such burdens today or tomorrow. We must be prepared, on our own, to deter nuclear war and keep our seas free.
Given those objectives, the debate of how to build, operate and maintain an adequate force structure should then follow.
Do we have the economic wherewithal to “nation build” overseas with ground forces in the future?
Before Congress starts cutting defense spending, a strategic debate is needed. We hope our two senators agree with that approach and would like to hear their views on that subject, given their positions of leadership in the Senate.