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New Ferguson-Inspired Laws Reform Cops and Courts in Missouri

Missourians with criminal convictions could have an easier time sealing those records under legislation signed Wednesday by Gov. Jay Nixon.

By Kurt Erickson

Missourians with criminal convictions could have an easier time sealing those records under legislation signed Wednesday by Gov. Jay Nixon.

The measure was among a handful of new crime-related laws signed by the governor, a Democrat, including a long-awaited update to youth sentencing laws, a ban on traffic ticket quotas and an overhaul of the Missouri's use-of-force statute.

Current state law requires people to wait 20 years to petition the courts for an expungement of a felony record. The wait time for a misdemeanor is 10 years.

The new law reduces those waiting periods to seven years for a felony and three years for a misdemeanor conviction. They must be free of any convictions during that time and must pay a fee of $250.

People who have committed dangerous felonies, sex offenses, domestic assault and other violent crimes would not be eligible.

The legislation, approved by large margins in both the House and Senate this spring, takes effect in 2018.

During debate on the measure in the Legislature, supporters also contended House Bill 588 would help former criminals find employment more easily. While the records would be sealed from public viewing, prosecutors and police could still access the information.

"Missourians who have paid their debt to society and become law-abiding citizens deserve a chance to get a job and support their families," Nixon said in a prepared statement.

The governor also signed off on a plan to bring Missouri into compliance with the U.S. Constitution when it comes to sentencing violent youth to prison.

Along with the current sentence of life without parole, juvenile murderers older than 16 could be assessed a minimum 50 years and be eligible for a parole hearing, while juvenile murderers younger than 16 could be sentenced to a minimum of 35 years and then be eligible for a parole hearing.

Senate Bill 590 came in response to a number of court cases that left Missouri out of step with the nation.

In 2005, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentencing a juvenile to death was unconstitutional, leaving Missouri with only one option for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder.

In 2012, the high court ruled that allowing only one sentencing option for those juveniles -- life without parole -- also was unconstitutional.

In March, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled a group of 84 inmates affected by the ruling should be granted a parole hearing after serving 25 years of their life sentences.

Also signed by the governor is a change to the law regarding how much physical force a police officer may use.

The change is designed by bring Missouri in compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Tennessee v. Garner.

"These are life-and-death decisions, and it is vital that Missouri statutes governing the use of force are clear and consistent with U.S. Supreme Court precedent," Nixon said.

Missourians also could see fewer speed traps as part of a new law that prohibits cities from requiring or encouraging an employee to issue a certain number of traffic tickets.

The measure banning ticket quotas is part of an ongoing push to address municipal court laws in the aftermath of the 2014 protests in Ferguson.

(c)2016 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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