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A Growing Concern: Rethinking Crime and Punishment in Boone County

By Inside Columbia
Boone County courthouse

In the aftermath of November’s general election, it became very clear that voters in Boone County as well as those around the entire United States were essentially worried about two things: the economy and crime. In a community that relies on a major university and state government as the bedrock of its economic strata, most economic concerns here are relatively minor and short term. Crime, on the other hand, continues to be a growing concern for people living in our community.

The dynamics of crime in Columbia are all interwoven by a number of factors that could be fixed with some hard work, determination and focus. Those who work in law enforcement will tell you that substance abuse and illegal drug activity are at the root of the vast majority of crimes committed in our community. Complicating this matter is the shortage of affordable treatment facilities that cater to low-income families and first-time offenders. The resulting increase in drug activity on our streets has created an untenable situation for our severely understaffed prosecutor’s office and law enforcement agencies alike.

Through no fault of the Columbia Police Department or the Boone County Sheriff’s Department, there is an alarmingly low number of officers patrolling Columbia streets at any given time. If you’ve recently called 911 regarding an incident that seemed critical to you at the time, you may know better than most that we desperately need more police officers on the street.

Unfortunately, it’s become considerably harder to recruit men and women into law enforcement. The endless barrage of anti- cop and “defund the police” rhetoric has made police work much more dangerous than it was a few years ago. According to FBI stats, 73 law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty in 2021. Sadly, 24 of those officers were killed in unprovoked attacks. The numbers for 2022 likely will be staggeringly higher. A new generation of parents has told their children that they don’t have to respect police officers. Repeat offenders know that there will likely be no consequences for their actions.

The shortage of prosecutors in the Boone County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has complicated the matter further. At one point in the last few years, there were more than 30 homicide cases that had not been tried. When a prosecutor’s office is overburdened, the obligation to guarantee a speedy trial forces them to make plea deals that put hardened criminals, and even murderers, back on the streets before they’ve served a sentence that is commensurate with the crime they’ve committed.

Perhaps you remember the recent murder of Columbia College student Nadria Wright whose killer was given an Alford plea by
the Boone County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. The man who took the life of this young woman, who had such a bright future ahead of her, was only given a seven-year sentence for the murder. I can only imagine the outrage I would feel had Nadria been my daughter. When a prosecutor is forced to cut corners like this, it’s a sign that his or her office is significantly understaffed.

Most people would be surprised to know that a committee of elected officials, judges and representatives of the prosecutor’s office and Race Matters, Friends (RMF) meets each month to review the list of inmates being held in the Boone County Jail. If the jail is overcrowded, this committee has tasked itself with the responsibility of deciding which inmates should be released to make room for other “justice-involved” individuals. Just in case you’re not as woke as you should be, “justice-involved” is the new politically correct term in Boone County for a felon, a convict, a criminal, an offender or a parolee. As you might guess, it’s not long before some of the folks who get released are back on the streets committing new crimes. Imagine the frustration a police officer must feel with the revolving door that is the Boone County criminal justice system.

One of the purposes of this committee is to avoid overcrowding the Boone County Jail and to avoid sending inmates to be housed in other counties. Right now, the jail has a total capacity of 246 inmates but an “optimal” capacity of 210, a number driven by the shifting number of female inmates and violent offenders being held at any given time. On any given day, Boone County houses between 30 and 40 inmates in other counties at a total average cost of approximately $1,600 per day. There is a concerted effort to keep this number and associated expenses as low as possible. The county may save some money, but what are the inherent risks associated with such an action?

The bottom line is that we need to expand our current jail facilities. We also need to get serious about the drug problem in our community. Giving local law enforcement the resources they need is a critical first step in reducing crime. The city of Columbia
and the county of Boone have together received $60 million in once-in-a-generation American Rescue Plan Funding. I can’t imagine a better use for these funds than to tackle the root issues behind Columbia’s growing crime problem.

Fred Parry is the founder and publisher emeritus of Inside Columbia.

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