Sponsors of prison nurseries proposal point to successes in other states

      Women entering Missouri prisons could have a chance to bond with their infant children while incarcerated, under a proposal that House members will be asked to consider in the session starting in a few days, but that concept is not new.  Prison nursery programs have existed in other states for years, and in some cases for decades.

      Ellisville Republican Bruce DeGroot is sponsoring one of the bills that would create a prison nursery program in Missouri, House Bill 1897.  He said as a state representative he doesn’t always have the resources to provide extensive data that can help to make a case for one of his proposals, but with this bill there is ample data on what a difference it’s made in other states.

      “Everything I’ve heard about this bill has been extremely positive, as it turned out in other states.”

      DeGroot said while he remains passionate about tort reform, which he believes protects and supports employment opportunities, this is a bill that can have an immediate impact on individual Missourians.

      “There are some bills that are just so directly related to people and their situations in life and this is one of those.”

      Springfield Republican Curtis Trent will also propose prison nursery legislation.  He says as the opening of the new session draws near he’s excited about pursuing this legislation.

      “Of course the legislative process is there to vet these ideas and make sure there are no unintended consequences, but so far the response that I’ve gotten has been very positive, very encouraging, and the data that we have from other states and the input that we have from other people in this state so far has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Trent.

      Illinois began its Moms and Babies program in 2007 at its Decatur Correctional Center.  Non-violent offenders are allowed to keep their babies with them until the age of two.  The Illinois Department of Public Health provides health education classes as well as lactation support and guidance.  Up to eight mothers and babies are able to live in the facility in safety and with staff support and counseling, and prison staff are trained on the needs of pregnant women and mothers.  Other incarcerated mothers are also able to help care for the children in the nursery.

      As of 2017, more than 90 women had gone through the program.  Only two had returned to prison within three years of release and only two were discharged from the program.      

      Maggie Burke was the warden at Decatur and managed the state’s women’s facilities until 2017.  She said the program has been tremendous in her state and she thinks Missouri should absolutely begin its own.

      “It’s a program that works.  It’s a program that works for moms.  Moms don’t come back to prison.”

      “There is not a ton of research on prison nurseries, but what we do know is that it does reduce the recidivism for the women who go through the program.  They are more bonded with their child and have more of a reason to stay on track when they get out.”

      Debbie Denning, who was part of the exploratory team that created Illinois’ program and was Deputy Director for the department’s Women and Family Services Division, agrees with Burke.

      “I absolutely would recommend that [Missouri] allow this program to happen, and I think that any concerns that legislators have can be addressed and really can help form the program,” said Denning.  “It’s really important not only for the culture of the facility – it makes the administration happy, it makes the employees happy, but overall it’s the best thing for the baby and the mother, and the recidivism shows that. 

      Once the bond occurs the mother is much more motivated to be successful and the administration sees a shift in that facility, and facilities are extremely dark and hard to run and a lightness comes in that you just cannot believe.”

      Burke said the programs in Illinois also take into account the unique needs of incarcerated women, who often are dealing with and need to recover from trauma.

      “A lot of the women have experienced significant trauma throughout their lives which have led them down various paths of substance use, and so a lot of them have never been a parent without some sort of substance use … what we found was that women were able to raise a baby for the first time and bond with a child for the first time without that substance use,” said Burke.

      “Part of our programming is parenting classes on learning how to be a better parent, but also part of our programming was kind of day care classes so that they would learn how you would take care of a child in day care.  You would log when you changed a diaper, what kind of diaper it was that you changed, how much you fed them, how much they ate, what kind of food, what kind of drink, and how much naptime they took.  You become better in tune with your child so when they come home they are better prepared to have more children if they do, just to be a better parent, a more attentive parent.”

      Denning said in Illinois there were those who were skeptical about creating a nursery program, and she was proud to watch their attitudes change once it was in place.

      “I had one sergeant … who was just awful about, ‘Why would we bring babies in prison,’ and ‘These women don’t deserve their children,’ and I put him on the committee.  We had him, within six months on our committee, he was the first one that I had to say, ‘You can’t bring things in for the babies,’ because he was bringing in clothing and different things.  It was just a complete turnaround.” 

Denning continued, “I think that with anybody, when you see that nurturing environment and you see that these women bond with their children … when they started to begin to understand that our job wasn’t to punish, but really to rehabilitate and set this person up to be a parent, to feel that bond with their child, and then to go out and be able to be self-sufficient and not relying on the system.  Once we were able to connect those dots, they were all over being positive about the program.”

      Burke said the program benefits not only the women and children who participate, but the rest of the prison.

      “The culture of the facility kind of changes.  I don’t know if you’ve been into very many prisons but there’s just kind of a feeling when you go into the prison and most facilities don’t feel like a facility that has a bunch of babies in it.”

Among other states that have a prison nursery program is Nebraska, where, as of 2018, there had been a 28-percent reduction in recidivism within 3 years of a participant’s initial offense and a 39-percent reduction in participants returning to prison custody.  From 1994 to 2012, Nebraska’s program saved that state more than $6-million.

      Both Trent and DeGroot say they have talked to the Missouri Department of Corrections and the office of Governor Mike Parson (R) and received positive responses to this idea. 

      The 2022 legislative session begins January 5.

‘Prison nurseries’ proposal would let incarcerated mothers bond with newborns in prison

      Women in Missouri prisons might not have to be separated from their newborns under a bill being considered for the legislative session that begins in January.

Representative Bruce DeGroot (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      The plan would allow some women who are pregnant when they are about to be incarcerated for short sentences to have their babies with them in prison so that they can bond with their newborns.  The idea is being referred to as the establishment of “prison nurseries.”

      Missouri Appleseed is an organization helping drive the effort.  Director Liza Weiss said some other states already have such programs, and some of those have been in place for years.

      “These programs last for a variety of times from three months to three years,” said Weiss.  She said women who have release dates falling within the given length of time and meet regulations set by the Department of Corrections, “would be able to participate in this program and live with their child, with their baby, in a separate area of the prison and care for the baby and bond with the baby, and then leave prison together with the baby, and be able to be a parent to the child.” 

      Representative Bruce DeGroot (R-Ellisville) will sponsor one version of the proposal.  He thinks it’s simply good government.

      “I think that once that bond forms, when these women get out they’re naturally going to want to take care of that baby and start doing the right things with their lives, and that’s why I’m so excited about this bill,” said DeGroot.

      Representative Curtis Trent (R-Springfield) plans to sponsor similar legislation.  He said the results seen in other states are encouraging.

      “Women and children do better, both in terms of mental health, the bonding of the child to the mother.  There’s also some indication that recidivism rates are lower in the long run, and of course there’s savings to the taxpayer as well.  If you take the child from the mother and put it into the foster system that’s a very expensive process.”  

      “Research on the development of the child has been very positive as well,” said Weiss.  “We realize this would be a change for the Department of Corrections, but we do think it would really be a win-win for the women and the babies.”

The Department told House Communications that right now when a woman in a Missouri state prison gives birth, that baby goes into foster care or with a family member. 

Representative Curtis Trent (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Currently, pregnant women are housed at the prison in Vandalia.  As of early October, 23 had delivered babies.  In 2016, that number reached 73, but decreased to 49 in 2019 and 31 last year.  The Department notes that in the last 4 years Missouri’s population of incarcerated women has dropped by 42 percent.

      Representatives DeGroot and Trent are still developing draft language for their bills, and DeGroot said the Department of Corrections is involved.  He expects to propose that the program be available to women whose sentences are for up to 18 months. 

      “The [woman has] to be a model prisoner.  She has to either have a high school degree or equivalent, or [be] working on that while in prison.  And, they have to remain a model prisoner, and they have to engage in pre- and post-natal classes so they learn how to take care of that baby.”

      DeGroot said he also views this as a “pro-life bill.”

      “I don’t know how many women who are scheduled to go to prison would actually consider aborting that baby before they got there, but I think this provides an incentive and peace of mind knowing that you’re going to be able to keep that baby and get that mother-baby bond while you’re still incarcerated … we’ve given some real hope, if this bill would get enacted,” said DeGroot.

      Not only is it anticipated the idea would save the state money, Weiss said she thinks it could be entirely supported by outside donations and grants. 

      “Missouri Appleseed has already been approached by several charities and foundations who’ve said this is something they’d be very excited about to support,” said Weiss.  “And part of the draft language from Representative DeGroot’s bill does create a fund in which grants from foundations and donations can be accepted by the state, too, to fund and sustain the nursery.”

      Legislators can begin pre-filing legislation on December 1, for the session that begins in January.

Pronunciations:

DeGroot does not include the “oo” sound = [de-GROTE)

Weiss rhymes with mice = [wice]

Feminine hygiene products now free to all women incarcerated in Missouri

      Women incarcerated in Missouri prisons and jails will now have access to feminine hygiene products free of charge, under legislation that became law in July.

Representative Bruce Degroot (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Senate Bill 53, signed into law by Governor Mike Parson (R) on July 14, included language that requires city and county jails to join the state’s prisons in providing those products to female inmates at no cost.  Many facilities had already been doing this.  The new law codifies that practice and extends it to those facilities that weren’t. 

      Research in 2018 showed that in Missouri’s two female prisons, more than 80 percent of women were making their own hygiene products, and those they were given for free were ineffectual.  These homemade products were often resulting in infections or other complications.

      The same language found in SB 53 was also sponsored by Representative Bruce DeGroot (R-Ellisville) in his House Bill 318.  DeGroot said the measure was a way to provide dignity to incarcerated women, while saving the state money.

      “These women were receiving additional medical treatment at the cost of the Missouri taxpayer when they did fashion their own products in order to save money,” said DeGroot.

      The proposal had broad bipartisan support.  One of its most vocal advocates was Representative Tracy McCreery (D-St. Louis)

      “What the research has shown is that if you don’t provide people with adequate products, they end up with poorer mental health outcomes and also with infections that can be really quite costly for the government since we’re responsible for healthcare when people are incarcerated,” said McCreery.

      Representatives McCreery and DeGroot both worked with an organization called Missouri Appleseed regarding the issue.  Appleseed is a nonprofit based in St. Louis.  Founding Director Liza Weiss said women in Missouri prisons were having to choose between things like buying adequate hygiene products, or talking to their children on the phone.

Representative Tracy McCreery (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “Women in Missouri prisons who have a GED, they make approximately $8.50 a month, and before this bill passed tampons were being sold in the canteen; a pack of 20 was like $5.36,” said Weiss.  “We’ve heard so many stories … that often times women would be turning down visits with an attorney or even with their family members because they were so ashamed that they weren’t able to take care of their menstrual cycle … they were worried about being embarrassed.”

      McCreery said part of what was so encouraging about this legislation was its bipartisan nature.

      “A lot of Missourians and even a lot of elected officials are really tired of the hyper-partisanship, and this was one of those issues where people from both sides of the aisle and also males and females came together to make this change happen, and I think that we need to do more of that,” said McCreery.

      The fiscal year 2022 budget also includes $240,000 to pay for providing those products to women in county and city jails and detention centers.

Pronunciations:

DeGroot does not include the “oo” sound = [de-GROTE)

Weiss rhymes with mice = [wice]

House bill to end modern ‘debtors’ prisons’ in Missouri signed into law

A House bill that became law Tuesday aims to keep Missourians from being jailed for failing to pay the costs of being jailed.

Representative Bruce DeGroot (center, standing) watches as Governor Mike Parson signs a bill he sponsored, House Bill 192, into law. (photo; Ben Peters, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 192, targeting so-called “debtors prisons” in Missouri, was signed into law by Governor Mike Parson (R).  It will do away with “show cause” hearings, in which defendants must provide a reason for failing to pay “board bills” for time they spent in a county jail.  Failure to show cause often resulted in additional jail time and additional board bills that could add up to thousands of dollars.

HB 192 will let counties use civil means to collect jail debts, but they can no longer threaten additional jail time for failure to pay.

“[Courts] can still charge people for the time they spend in jail.  [They] can’t have show cause hearings anymore.  [Courts] can’t put people back in jail for not paying their jail bill,” said bill sponsor Representative Bruce DeGroot (R-Chesterfield).  “[Counties] can still sue that person civilly and reduce that debt to a judgment and garnish wages just like you would in a civil court with a credit card debt or a medical bill.”

DeGroot worked closely with Kansas City representative Mark Ellebracht (D) on the legislation.

“I think it means a lot in terms of just fairness and justice and how the system works,” said Ellebracht, “because once a person gets put in jail, once they get sent down for 30 days, their time is their punishment.  That’s the deal that we’ve made with people:  we’re going to sentence you to 30 days … now with regard to what you owe the sheriff for their bill … you can’t pay that bill off if you’re in jail on a warrant for not paying that bill, so it just makes sense that the sheriff should have to collect that money through the normal debt collection processes like any other creditor would have to.”

DeGroot and Ellebracht both credit St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger for spurring the legislation with a series of articles he wrote about the current system.  Those articles also earned Messenger a Pulitzer Prize.

In one case Messenger wrote about, a woman incurred more than $10,000 in “board bills” after stealing an $8 tube of mascara.

DeGroot said situations like that go against the principle of people who have paid their debt to society returning to being productive members of society, providing for themselves and their families, and getting back on the tax rolls.

“A bill like this, in my opinion, is win-win.  Yes, it helps the people that would otherwise be burdened with these jail bills, but it also helps our entire society as a whole,” said DeGroot.

Representative Mark Ellebracht worked across the political aisle with Rep. DeGroot to end what many called modern ‘debtors prisons’ in Missouri. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

In presenting HB 192 DeGroot was the most visibly animated and joyful he has been in his three years in the legislature.  He admits he was very enthused about the legislation.

“The reason I went to law school was I loved the book To Kill A Mockingbird … and I wanted to be Atticus Finch.  I wanted to change the world, and after you graduate from law school you’ve got student debt, you have houses, and kids, and cars, and who knows what, trips to Disneyworld, and you forget about being Atticus Finch.  Well now my kids are grown, and you don’t have quite the pressures you used to, and I view [House Bill 192] as probably the best thing I ever did with my law degree.”

Following their success with HB 192, Ellebracht said he and DeGroot are talking regularly about other topics they hope to team up on.

Ellebracht says any differences he and DeGroot have in party or other issues don’t really have any bearing on criminal justice reform, “When we’re looking at something and we’re saying to ourselves, ‘[Missouri law is] really handicapping a lot of folks in the economy by preventing them from getting good jobs, and [Missouri law is] really handicapping a lot of businesses by putting them in a position where they can’t afford to be hiring folks who have had that little minor scrape in their background, for fear of some kind of public retribution, or maybe a lawsuit here or there or something like that, so we need to figure out a way that we can adjust the way we do things so that it’s more fair for everybody involved.”

HB 192 also included language that would allow judges to waive mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for non-violent offenders who meet certain criteria.

Both provisions become effective August 28.

Earlier stories:  

Legislature proposes reforms to end ‘debtor’s prisons,’ mandatory minimum sentences

House votes to prevent of jailing of Missourians for failing to pay jail bills

Legislature proposes reforms to end ‘debtor’s prisons,’ mandatory minimum sentences

The Legislature has approved bipartisan legislation that would keep Missourians from being put back in jail for failing to pay the costs of being put in jail; and would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes.

Representative Bruce DeGroot (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 192 aims to end charging prisoners board bills” for their stays in jail.  Persons who don’t pay those bills can be required to come to a “show-cause” hearing and risk additional jail time.  Lawmakers said this amounted to putting people in a “debtor’s prison.”

The bill would allow counties to seek to collect jail bills through civil means, with no threat of jail time.  The House’s 138-11 vote on Monday sends that bill to Governor Mike Parson (R).

Bill sponsor Bruce DeGroot (R-Chesterfield) worked closely with Liberty Democrat Mark Ellebracht on the legislation.  DeGroot said current law is putting Missourians who’ve committed minor crimes and who can’t afford to pay fines and boarding costs back in jail, where they only incur more boarding costs.

“The people who don’t pay their fines and court costs who got put in jail because they couldn’t afford to bond themselves out, and now all of a sudden they owe $1300 for their week in jail and fines and court costs, and then they come before the judge and the judge says, ‘You owe $1300,’ and they say, ‘I don’t have it,’ and he says, ‘Fine, come on back next month and have at least $100,’ so they come on back the next month and they don’t have it and the judge puts them in jail, or they don’t show because they can’t get a babysitter or they can’t get off work, or they do get off work and they get fired,” said DeGroot.

DeGroot said in one case, a woman who stole an $8 tube of mascara incurred more than $10,000 in “board bills.”

Representative Mark Ellebracht (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Ellebracht said the legislation is proof that opposing parties who often vehemently disagree can come together to do good things.

“We worked well together on this issue because we worked as colleagues and we respected each other’s opinion, and we made what I regard as a very, very good bill, and we are correcting a problem that a lot of people face in the State of Missouri,” said Ellebracht.

The Senate added to HB 192 legislation to allow judges to waive mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for non-violent offenders who meet certain criteria.  That was the goal of House Bill 113, which the House passed in February, 140-17.

It was sponsored by Carthage Republican Cody Smith.

“It’s been shown in other red states like Texas and Oklahoma that if we change the way we treat folks – non-violent offenders – we can lead to better outcomes by keeping them out of prison, to the extent that that’s possible.  It leads to better outcomes in their lives, their families’ lives.  It leads to savings by not having people incarcerated in state prisons,” said Smith.

Springfield Republican Curtis Trent said both provisions speak to priorities that Governor Parson and Chief Justice Zel Fischer both spoke about when addressing the House and the Senate earlier this year.

“It’s a question of who we want in our prisons.  Do we want people in our prisons who are mainly a threat to themselves – they have poor judgement – or do we want people in there who are truly a threat to society, who are predators, who are going to victimize other people, not just for minor, monetary amounts, but in ways that are truly life-altering, and I think those are the people who we want to prioritize,” said Trent.

It’s now up to Governor Parson whether HB 192 becomes law.  If it does, it would take effect August 28.

Sweeping criminal justice reform package prepared for consideration

The House Speaker has said criminal justice reform is a priority in the remaining weeks of the session, and a bill containing several proposed reforms has just been compiled.  It has the backing of a man made famous by President Donald Trump earlier this year.

Representative Shamed Dogan (left, in red tie) listens as Matthew Charles talks about his release under the federal First Step Act, and his support for HCB 2, the Missouri First Step Act. (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Committee Bill 2, also being called the Missouri First Step Act, was assembled by the House Special Committee on Criminal Justice.  It is a compilation of several individual bills, some of which have already been passed by the House.

Trump featured Matthew Charles during his State of the Union Address.  Charles is the first person released from prison under the federal First Step Act, a federal reform bill signed into law by Trump in December.

In 1996 Charles was sentenced to 35 years in prison for selling crack cocaine.  In prison he turned his life around and earned an early release in 2016.  Though he was living a productive life, a court decision overturned his release and sent him back to prison until he was released under the First Step Act.

He’s excited about a provision in HCB 2 that would let judges ignore mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes in Missouri.

“It would allow the probation officer as well as the judge to make an assessment on the amount of time that needed to be imposed on somebody for that crime, or the amount of time they will actually serve for that offense, whereas rehabilitation has been taken away from prison for a long time,” said Charles.

The stand-alone mandatory minimum sentences legislation, House Bill 113 sponsored by Representative Cody Smith (R-Carthage), has been sent to the Senate and awaits a committee hearing.

HCB 2 will be carried by the committee’s chairman, Representative Shamed Dogan (R-Ballwin), who has been a proponent of criminal justice reform during his five years in the House.

“These measures are all evidence-based.  They will all help us save enormous amounts of taxpayer money while also improving public safety, and they’ll give people who’ve made mistakes in their lives a chance to be treated with dignity while incarcerated and to have more of a chance of rebuilding their lives whenever they get out,” said Dogan.

HCB 2 would apply the state’s law restricting the use of restraints on pregnant offenders to county or city jails.  That bars the use of restraints on a woman in the third trimester of pregnancy and through 48-hours after delivery while they’re being transported except in extraordinary circumstances, which must be documented and reviewed.

Representative Mary Elizabeth Coleman (R-Arnold) sponsors that legislation (House Bill 1122).  She said it’s about the safety of those offenders, but also of their babies.

“It’s making sure that when women are in labor, when women are in advanced stages of pregnancy, and when they have really no risk of harm that we’re really treating people as people and that we’re being appropriate as well,” said Coleman.  “It’s not about trying to be lax on people who have committed crimes.  They’re paying their costs, but a pregnant woman is very vulnerable and we want to make sure that she and her child are delivered safely.”

Representative Cheri Toalson Reisch (at podium) speaks about her portion of HCB 2, the Missouri First Step Act (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Another piece of HCB 2 coming from a bill sponsored by Coleman (House Bill 920) would require that feminine hygiene products are available to women being held in the state’s prisons or on state charges in county and city jails.

“That is not an issue that I expected to be tackling but you find out certain things and you think, ‘How is it possible that as a state we’re not providing adequate hygiene supplies to those who are in our care and custody?’” said Coleman.

Representative Cheri Toalson Reisch (R-Hallsville) sponsored House Bill 189, to allow people convicted of felonies to work in certain businesses that sell alcohol or lottery tickets, such as grocery or convenience stores.  That is also included in HCB 2.

“Where I’m from in Boone County we have 1.5-percent unemployment.  This is the second lowest in the country.  We cannot find enough employees.  We would like to put these felons to work,” said Toalson Reisch.  “We need them to avoid recidivism and make better lives for themselves and their families.”

Two of the other pieces of HCB 2 would restrict the use of drug and alcohol testing by privately operated probation supervisors (House Bill 80Justin Hill, R-Lake St. Louis); and would keep courts from putting people in jail for failing to pay the costs associated with prior jail time (House Bill 192Bruce DeGroot, R-Chesterfield).  Both of those stand-alone bills have been sent to the Senate for its consideration.

HCB 2 includes language to allow for the early parole of certain inmates over the age of 65 (House Bill 352, Tom Hannegan, R-St. Charles); to stop the confiscation of assets from a person who hasn’t been convicted of a crime (House Bill 444, Dogan); and to prohibit discriminatory policing (House Bill 484, Dogan).

HCB 2 awaits a hearing by a House committee before it can be sent to the full chamber for debate.

Earlier stories on two of the bills that are part of HCB 2:

House votes to prevent jailing of Missourians for failing to pay jail bills (HB 192)

Missouri House endorses elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes (House Bill 113)

House votes to prevent jailing of Missourians for failing to pay jail bills

The Missouri House has voted to keep judges from putting people back in jail for failing to pay for the costs of keeping them in jail.

Representative Bruce DeGroot (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 192 would keep a person’s failure to pay a jail for housing that person, from resulting in more jail time that would result in additional housing costs.  Instead, a local sheriff could attempt to collect such costs owed through civil proceedings, or a judge could waive those costs.

The legislation is sponsored by Chesterfield Republican Bruce DeGroot, who worked closely with Liberty Democrat Mark Ellebracht.

HB 192 has broad, bipartisan support, as members of both parties agreed that being jailed for failing to pay so-called “board bills” only created a cycle of debt that some Missourians have been trapped in for years.  Legislators gave examples of individuals who had stolen items like makeup or candy, and years later owe tens of thousands of dollars to the local jails that had housed them.

“It just seems so contradictory that I can’t pay a $1000 bill, so you put me back in jail, so that when I get back out of jail now my bill is $1,500.  It just seemed to keep going for forever,” said Representative Deb Lavender (D-Kirkwood).

“In my opinion the goal of the criminal justice system … if you do something wrong, you should be punished.  On the other hand, once you’ve completed your punishment, once you’ve served your time in jail, man, the goal ought to be to get those people back out into society [to] be productive of society, paying for their families, rather than have them in jail dodging warrant servers, and get them back on the tax roll,” said DeGroot.

Ellebracht stressed that these “board bills” are not the same thing as court costs or fines that might be assessed against a defendant.

“When somebody gets thrown in jail, their time is their punishment.  That’s the point of it … but the money that’s accrued for your care – for your food, your clothing, the shelter over your head that the county’s providing – that’s money owed for a service provided incidental to your punishment,” said Ellebracht.  “So, the sheriff has every right to collect that money … they just don’t have a right to keep bringing you back to court and throwing you in jail, thereby accruing more board bills to do so.”

DeGroot said he doesn’t fault the judges in the state who have been jailing individuals over board bills.

Representative Mark Ellebracht (photo; Tim Bommel, House Communications)

“The judges in the counties that practiced this way, I think, are all trying to reform themselves now because they know that not only [the legislature] but the Supreme Court has an appetite right now for curbing this kind of behavior,” said DeGroot, “but they were just, in my opinion, just using the tools that they had available to them.  They didn’t know how else to collect, because the threat of jail time is much more severe than, ‘We’re going to take your stuff.’”

HB 192 would do away with hearings in which the court requires a defendant to show why he or she shouldn’t be jailed for failing to pay board bills.  Lawmakers heard that defendants are often required to appear monthly for such hearings and a warrant is issued for them if they fail to appear.

The bill is supported by a number of groups including the Missouri State Public Defender, the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

The House voted 156-1 to send the bill to the Senate for its consideration.

Missouri House votes to limit lawsuits against bankruptcy trusts in asbestos illness cases

The Missouri House has voted to limit the ability to file lawsuits against bankruptcy trusts in cases of asbestos-related illness.

Representative Bruce DeGroot (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representative Bruce DeGroot (R-Chesterfield) said plaintiffs who sue solvent companies for an asbestos-related illness and are awarded money by a jury often then file claims against bankruptcy trusts for the same health issues – what he called “double dipping.”  His legislation, House Bill 1645, would give plaintiffs 30 days from filing suit against a solvent company to disclose any potential claims against a bankruptcy trust.

DeGroot said the bill aims to protect bankruptcy trusts, which compensate those injured by defunct companies, and have finite resources.

“Once that money is depleted it’s gone, and if we are allowing the system as it currently stands to go on, what we’re doing is allowing those trusts to be depleted at a much quicker rate than what they should be,” said DeGroot.  “Who this of course truly affects is that guy standing at the end of the line … by the way, we don’t even who those people are at this point, but by the time they get up and they’re ready to make their claim against the bankruptcy trust, that money won’t be in effect any longer.”

Jefferson City Republican Jay Barnes said current law already allows defendants in these cases to prevent “double dipping” by claimants.  He argued that it could take claimants longer than 30 days to know whether they have a claim against a trust, and under DeGroot’s bill many sick with mesothelioma would die before they could get to a trial.

He also said DeGroot’s bill would do the opposite of protecting bankruptcy trusts.

Representative Jay Barnes (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“Under current law a claimant is not required to file a trust claim … they don’t have to take any assets from a trust under current law.  And [Representative DeGroot], who says his bill is to protect trust assets, requires them to make claims from these trusts,” said Barnes.  “Under current law there is a situation where there could be zero claim against the trust and if this bill passes, every person who has a claim against a trust must make a claim against a trust it does the exact opposite of what [Representative DeGroot] says is the purpose of the bill.”

Representative DaRon McGee (D-Kansas City) said the concept that individuals who pursue claims against trusts after suing solvent companies is double dipping is a “myth.”

“If four defendants are responsible for an injury and you sue two solvent defendants and are forced to pursue the other two through trusts, this is not ‘double dipping.’  You’re getting the full dip that you’re entitled to,” said McGee.

Kansas City Republican Kevin Corlew said the bill would allow plaintiffs to pursue claims against trusts in a more efficient way while at the same time pursuing cases against solvent companies.

“It’s often not the plaintiff’s fault that this information isn’t brought forth, it’s the plaintiff’s lawyers who are trying to make sure that they get recovery here and then make sure that they get recovery later through the system.  All this is saying is seek recovery at the same time,” said Corlew.

The House voted 96-48 to send the bill to the Senate, which is considering its own version of the proposal.

Lawmaker wants Missouri on track to next-generation 911

Some Missouri lawmakers think you should be able to send text, photos, videos, or data to 911, and they want to put the state on a schedule to achieve that goal.

Representative Lyle Rowland (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Lyle Rowland (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

A House Committee has been asked to consider House Bill 1094, offered by Cedarcreek Republican Lyle Rowland after he was approached by a friend who sits on the Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.  He was told people who are deaf could use text to communicate with 911 operators.

Rowland’s bill would require the Advisory Committee for 911 Service Oversight to develop a plan and target dates for Missouri to test, implement, and operate a next generation 911 system.

“This will provide our deaf communities a way of getting emergency help when it’s needed,” said Rowland.

The Committee heard from Opeoluwa Sotonwa, the Commission’s executive director.  He explained what it could be like for a person who is deaf or hard of hearing to use 911 in most of Missouri.

“A hard of hearing individual who speaks may be able to share his or her needs, but may not be able to hear questions being asked.  I may not be able to understand what action others are taking if I cannot hear them speak.  Moreover, I am not able to speak directly with a 911 operator,” said Sotonwa through an interpreter.  “You can count the resources used to track a suspect, evaluate the cost of replacing a house, and tally deaths of those who cannot receive help fast enough, however what is not measureable is the fear, insecurity, and indignity of the Missourians who are not able to access 911 services because our state’s technology is simply outdated.”

Representative Bruce Degroot confirmed as true what Sotonwa said would happen if, in most of Missouri, a person sends a text to 911.

“I did exactly as the witness suggested and texted 911, letting them know it wasn’t a true emergency, and sure enough I got a message back,” said DeGroot.  “’Make a voice call to 911 for help.  Text to 911 is not available.’”

Steve Hoskins, the Vice President of Association of Public Safety Communications Officials, told the committee his organization also backs the bill.  He said a next generation 911 system wouldn’t just help those with hearing problems.

“What if you’re calling 911 but the reason you’re calling is because you’re choking and you can’t speak?  That’s why we need this kind of technology,” said Hoskins.

No one spoke against Rowland’s bill.  The committee has not voted on it.