Because of prison overcrowding, Missouri built five new prisons in the 1990s and then neglected to fund their operation, says Legal Affairs magazine. By the time the prisons were fully staffed in 2004, the system was already at capacity. Missouri was forced to adopt a “one-in/one-out” prison policy. For every felon who goes in another must come out, and nonviolent offenders, including meth cooks, come out first. The state legislature also began rolling back the stiff penalties that it had mandated in the late ’90s. Over the objections of the state’s attorney general, last year the legislature lessened penalties for nonviolent felonies, including meth possession. Judges were given leeway to offer probation even to repeat drug offenders.
The result is that it’s increasingly difficult for cops and prosecutors to send convicted meth cooks to prison. “I can take [a cook] before a judge for the third time and the law says 15 years, and they’re out on probation,” Parks said. Cooks are especially unlikely to do time if they come from the rural places where meth is most prevalent. Drug offenders are three times more likely than others to be on probation or parole than behind bars. The strain on budgets has forced states to make meth somebody else’s problem by pushing it out of their areas, and by shifting the burden of paying for their battle to the rest of the country’s taxpayers. In Missouri and the rest of the Midwestern meth belt, the drug warriors are on the federal dole. Next door to Missouri, a Kansas auditor estimated that 40 percent of his state’s anti-meth efforts were funded by the federal government. In Missouri, $100 million in federal funds pays for everything from enforcement to prosecution.