By Jane H. Aiken

Incarceration rates in Missouri are 12 percent higher than the nation. We also spend 6.8 percent of our state budget on the cost of incarceration.

Currently there are over 30,000 men and women in Missouri’s prisons. Reducing that number would substantially reduce costs so we can better spend that money to support the thousands in the state who find themselves out of work, hungry and homeless.

Governors all over the nation are looking hard for ways to stop unnecessary, costly incarceration. Absent some kind of expansive legislative action, this cost-saving strategy rests solely in the hands of the governor. The concern, appropriately, is that if we release these prisoners, will they commit new crimes?

So how can we reduce the prison population, while at the same time, protect Missourians?

The single best indicator of determining whether a person will commit another crime after leaving prison is age. Older prisoners pose a significantly lower risk of recidivism if released.

In addition to their lower risk, older prisoners impose much higher costs on the system as maintenance and medical costs, on average, are two to three times that of a younger prisoner.

Let’s look at a 40-year old prisoner. The prisoner did not have a criminal record before the present offense. The prisoner has already served considerable time and has an excellent institutional record. The prisoner has made use of the rehabilitative, educational and skills-building training provided in the prison. The prisoner has a supportive family and job prospects upon release. It’s easy to see that the prisoner described here (while admittedly rare) should be considered for release to save us all money.

To make it easier, let’s add equity issues into the mix. Missouri has historically sentenced women charged with violent crimes far more harshly than their male counterparts. Issues that have been traditionally excused in men, like alleged infidelity or alleged poor parenting, have been used to taint women, inflame juries, and obscure weaknesses in proof. This has resulted in extremely long sentences and perhaps wrongful convictions.

The problem of gender bias has improved over time but there are women in Missouri prisons who were convicted before societal awareness of this problem existed.

Governor Nixon is considering a clemency case that calls out for release, if not to correct the gender bias that plagued her trial, to reduce the cost of incarceration.

Patty Prewitt is emblematic of the prisoner who should be free. Prewitt’s trial focused far more on her infidelities and suggested bad mothering than on the facts of her case. Not surprisingly, she was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for 50 years. Her case is ripe for scrutiny. Even if the equities do not persuade, she is 60 years old, has served 25 years of her sentence, has an excellent institutional record, has participated in virtually every prison program for which she qualified and even created others, has a family eager to have her home, and four job offers waiting for her.

Even former Department of Corrections’ employees support her release. Sixty-five legislators saw the merit in ending her incarceration and urged Governor Nixon to grant her clemency. It’s time to release Patty Prewitt. If not for her, then for all of us who must pay the bills for her incarceration and her inevitably increasing health care needs.

There is nothing more the State of Missouri can do to her or for her. Send her home to her children who have been waiting for their mother for 25 long years and to her aging parents who yearn for her to be with them in their final days.
Aiken is the director of The Community Justice Project at Georgetown University Law Center and former Director of the Civil Justice Clinic at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis.
Copyright (C) 2010 by Missouri Forum. 7/10