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The Criminal Justice Reforms Coming to Missouri

After being a leader in prison population, Missouri is moving away from locking up non-violent offenders to serve long sentences.

By Crystal Thomas

After being a leader in prison population, Missouri is moving away from locking up non-violent offenders to serve long sentences.

Backed by a bipartisan group of legislators and activists, Gov. Mike Parson signed a series of bills Tuesday including measures to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent offenses and to prohibit added prison time as punishment for people who can't pay jail board bills.

Parson, who was the Polk County Sheriff for 12 years starting in 1992, said his time in law enforcement helped inform his views. He said he hoped to provide more training and jobs and focus on rehabilitation for inmates.

"A lot of times when you come to Jefferson City, when you become a legislator, you want to be hard on crime -- you want to be a crime fighter," Parson said, standing in his Jefferson City office. "But the reality of it is, the system needed to change over the years because just locking people up was not always the answer."

The tilt in attitude toward criminal justice reform has been a long time coming, according to Sen. Kiki Curls, a Kansas City Democrat who sponsored one of the bills Parson signed Tuesday. It allows those who commit crimes of property damage, theft or credit/debit card fraud to seek expungement of their record.

Views began to shift in 2014, when the legislature passed the first overhaul of Missouri's criminal code since 1979. The changes -- consolidating much of the "tough on crime" sentencing laws and lessening some sentences -- went into effect in 2017.

"The temperament of the legislature is changing, regarding expungement," Curls said. "We are hoping every year we can chip away a little more and add additional offenses to the list."

Curls worked with State Rep. Cody Smith, a Republican from southwest Missouri, to move the bill forward. The push wasn't regional or partisan, they said.

"Often folks that are convicted of nonviolent crimes -- that punishment and those outcomes can affect the trajectory of their lives for a long time and has a negative impact on society," Smith, R-Carthage, said. "If we can help people rehabilitate and those who do rehabilitate move on to new opportunities -- we can all agree, whether you are Republican or Democrat."

The emphasis on criminal justice reform has been a steady drumbeat since before the legislative session started in January, according to state Rep. Shamed Dogan, who chairs the House Committee on Crime Prevention and Public Safety.

Parson and Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Zel Fischer both addressed the need in their opening speeches to the legislature. Shortly before the session began, President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act, which led to thousands of federal prisoners having their sentences re-evaluated.

"All of the signs were pointing to movement on this issue," Dogan said.

State Rep. Bruce DeGroot, a leading advocate for keeping Missourians out of prison for unpaid jail debt, said the legislation was spurred by series of stories about Missouri's "debtor's prisons," especially in rural areas, by St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger. Messenger won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Commentary for his coverage.

DeGroot, a Chesterfield Republican, noted that Messenger didn't often agree with the GOP legislature. The pairing was another odd combination in the coalition pushing for reforms.

"A broken clock can be right twice," DeGroot joked, moments before governor signed the bill.

Dogan said if anything, Missouri legislators, like most of the public, can agree on the underlying premise of criminal justice reform: saving taxpayer money and second chances for those who commit nonviolent offenses.

"I think most of Missouri has moved on from the '80s style lock 'em up and throw away the key philosophy and more towards rehabilitation and focusing on how we spend our taxpayer resources wisely in terms of public safety," Dogan said.

The bill could save the state up to $5.8 million once fully implemented in the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2023, according to legislative researchers.

Similar to the First Step Act, those who were sentenced for some nonviolent offenses before the law goes into the effect -- Aug. 28 -- would be eligible for a parole hearing. The Department of Corrections estimates the bill could decrease Missouri's prison population by 192 people this year and by 925 people once fully implemented.

In 2016, Missouri had the eighth largest prison population per capita. In the last year, it has 2,000 fewer prisoners, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections.

Another bill signed by Parson would allow judicial circuits to create drug treatment courts and prosecutors to create diversion programs. It would also increase the amount of restitution paid by the state to exonerated Missourians from $50 a day to $100.

Dogan said there was much more to do.

Decriminalization of marijuana could be the next possible reform, he said, adding that 10 percent of arrests in Missouri are for marijuana possession.

"Given that we just overwhelmingly voted for medical marijuana in the state of Missouri, that's completely nonsensical that someone who possesses less than ounce of pot can go for jail or prison sentence," Dogan said.

Between legislative sessions, he will host hearings in St. Louis and Kansas City on racial profiling during vehicle stops and civil asset forfeiture, he said.

(c)2019 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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