Missouri lawmakers consider an overhaul of the state’s justice system

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Your Missouri lawmakers are working on an overhaul to the entire justice system in the state. The plan would try to keep your family safer, and save your tax dollars.

It's called the Justice Reinvestment Act. It's the culmination of the work of the Justice Reinvestment Task Force, that met over the Summer and Fall.

Missouri has the nation's 8th highest incarceration rate for adults, and the 5th highest for women. Bill sponsor Sen. Caleb Rowden (R-Columbia) says, if nothing is done to lower those numbers, Missouri will need to build a new male prison and a new female prison by 2022, "The idea is to figure out a way to not have to build two prisons over the next decade at the cost of half-a-billion dollars, and 50-million dollars a year in maintenance."

Supporters believe they can do that by keeping less serious offenders out of jail. Rowden says, for some Missourians, being behind bars that first time, starts a downward spiral, "In instances where we've been sending folks who are dealing with substance issues, we just send them back to jail, and really increase their risk of recidivism. Instead, we're taking a different tact, more community behavioral health options."

Besides establishing those new behavioral health centers, the law would also improve access to crime victim funds, introduce a new jail payments structure, and improve parole assessment. For example, supporters say they could put some offenders on electronic monitoring rather than keeping them in jail. The idea is to keep an eye on low-risk criminals, while also keeping them contributing to their communities. It would start as a pilot programs in three counties.

Rowden says, "The hope is, that we can prove the value of this, and expand that over the course of time. And, hopefully figure out a way to not have to build those two new prisons. Because, it's not a good way to go from a policy perspective, and, certainly, I don't think we can afford it."

The plan would require about five million dollars of state money to fund those pilot treatment programs. But, supporters believe if it saves taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, it's worth it.

That bill passed the Senate with support from democrats and republicans. The House should start working on it in the next week.

Read the original version of this article at www.ky3.com.