House bill to relax mandatory minimum sentencing signed into law

Judges will be able to ignore Missouri’s mandatory minimum sentencing requirements in some cases, under a House Bill that was signed into law this week by Governor Mike Parson (R).

Representative Cody Smith (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Missouri law requires that offenders with one prior conviction serve at least 40-percent of a prison term.  Those with two prior convictions must serve at least half their term, and those with three or more must serve 80-percent.

House Bill 192 contained language that would give judges flexibility in sentencing for some nonviolent offenses.  It was part of a broader look at criminal justice reform that House members have been pursuing over several sessions.

The language was proposed by Representative Cody Smith (R-Carthage).

“When Governor Parson signed House Bill 192 that was the most significant mandatory minimum sentencing reform, to my knowledge, that we’ve ever had in Missouri,” said Smith.  “That’s an incredibly rewarding feeling when we know that it’s become clear that harsh mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent crimes only leads to bad outcomes, and this is a way that we can start to help change the trajectory of people’s lives.”

Smith said the number of people in Missouri’s prisons has steadily grown for decades.  He said many of those being incarcerated are non-violent offenders, who have a high rate of recidivism and of committing increasingly violent offenses.

“I’ve heard it said that prison is finishing school for hardened criminals,” said Smith.  “You go in for something that may be relatively innocuous in terms of violence … you come out and you’re a hardened criminal.”

Smith, who is also the chairman of the House Budget Committee, said reducing Missouri’s prison populations would also save the state money.  He notes that as recently as 2017, Missouri was on track to need two new prisons to accommodate the growing number of offenders.

“I believe that the mandatory minimum reform language that’s in House Bill 192 will help deter those costs by keeping people out of prison – again we’re talking only about folks convicted of non-violent crimes – keeping them out of prison is better for them, better for their families, better for society, and also better for taxpayers who don’t have to pay to keep them in prison.”

Ballwin representative Shamed Dogan (R) chairs the House Special Committee on Criminal Justice, which handled not only HB 192, but Smith’s original legislation, House Bill 113.  He said the mandatory minimum sentencing changes will allow judges those cases to be judges.

“That is something that will give people more second chances – people who shouldn’t be in prison as long as that mandatory sentence would determine,” said Dogan.  “A judge can look at that person’s overall life; they can look at the particulars of their offense, and really just letting judges do their job, which is to make tough decisions without having their hands tied behind their backs by mandatory minimum sentences.”

Other language in HB 192 will keep counties from putting an individual back in jail for failing to pay the cost of his or her earlier jail term.

The bill’s provisions take effect August 28.

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 approves budget plan maintaining $100-million boost to transportation

The Missouri House has proposed a $29.2-billion state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.  Among other things it maintains Appropriations Committee Chairman Cody Smith’s (R-Carthage) plan to apply $100-million of General Revenue to road and bridge projects.  That would be in addition to the money in the state’s Road and Bridge Fund, which is dedicated to transportation.

House Budget Committee Chairman Cody Smith, R-Carthage (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

If that proposal becomes law it would be the first time GR dollars have been used for transportation infrastructure.  Smith said the state’s road funding has been falling behind for years, and with other proposals to support it having fallen short – including a gas tax increase that was rejected by voters in November – it’s time to consider unprecedented sources.

He also said his plan is a better option than what Governor Mike Parson (R) proposed, to use bonds to support $350-million for bridge projects, which take years to pay off.

“Going further into debt comes at a high cost.  We already spend, on average, about 24-percent of the road fund on debt service as it is,” said Smith.  “This plan, paying as we go, could save us as much as $100-million over the course of 15 years, and it’s really that simple.”

Democrats say this approach creates uncertainty for the Department of Transportation, which wouldn’t know year-to-year how much money the legislature might decide to give it.

Kansas City representative Greg Razer (D) said the plan also would set a precedent that transportation would compete with other state priorities that are already funded with GR dollars, including education and medical care.

“The day will come when we have our director of transportation, people with disabilities, the presidents and chancellors of our universities all coming and trying to fight over the same pot of money,” said Razer.

Representative Greg Razer, D-Kansas City (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Razer and other Democrats said the state should not get away from using only the Road and Bridge Fund to support transportation.

“It’s something that has served us well for nearly a century,” said Razer.

Democrats say $100-million won’t go very far toward meeting the transportation infrastructure needs across the state.  Festus Republican Becky Ruth said a lot of options that have been considered might be short-term solutions.  She said this one would be a good start.

“Right now we have to do something, and that’s what the people of Missouri [have] asked us to do,” said Ruth.

“When our school busses are travelling on roads and crossing bridges and many of those bridges are in poor condition, I want you to stop and think about those children sitting on that school bus.  I want you to stop and think about the families driving in their car down the road.  I want you to stop and think about all of the people that use our highways day in and day out to get to their destinations – to go to work, to return from work – and they want to be able to do that safely,” said Ruth.

Smith said it is his intention to propose the use of General Revenue in future budget years to cover the projects that would’ve been paid for in the governor’s plan.  Each year, then, that would have to be decided upon by the General Assembly.

The 13 budget bills that make up the House’s spending plan now go to the State Senate, which will propose changes to it.  Then the two chambers will attempt to reach a compromise on a budget to be sent to the governor before the constitutional deadline of May 10.

House Budget head unveils road and bridge funding proposal as part of F.Y. ’20 budget

The Missouri House’s Budget Committee Chairman has unveiled his plan for paying for road and bridge work in the state, in place of the plan proposed by Governor Mike Parson (R) in January.

House Budget Committee Chairman Kip Kendrick (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representative Cody Smith’s (R-Carthage) plan is to use a $100-million from the state’s General Revenue Fund to support the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP), which is the Department of Transportation’s plan for road and bridge improvements for the coming years.

Parson’s plan called for using $351-million in bonds to replace or repair 250 bridges throughout Missouri.  The bonding would have been paid back with about $30-million from the state’s General Revenue fund for 15 years.

Smith said it is important to focus on creating a plan that would funds transportation infrastructure but not put the state further into debt.

“We spend hundreds of millions of dollars in debt service every year … when we have an opportunity to make a similar impact on the bridges that have been identified as in need of repair over the course of four years and thereby save the state $100-million over 15 years I think we out to try to take that opportunity,” said Smith.

The Department has paid more than $700-million in debt payments in the last two years, and its average payment is $313-million a year.

Smith proposes spending $100-million in general revenue on roads and bridges in the next four years’ budgets or more.  That would be subject to the appropriation process in each of those years.  Smith potentially will be the House budget chairman throughout that time, and therefore would be in a position help make that happen.

State budget experts say General Revenue has never been used to pay for transportation infrastructure.  That is usually done with funds earmarked for that purpose.  Smith said it’s time to consider a fundamental change.

“The budget is a reflection of the state’s priorities and amongst those priorities should first be the core functions of government and I’d certainly put transportation infrastructure amongst the core functions of government,” said Smith.

Representative Kip Kendrick is the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Columbia representative Kip Kendrick is the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee.  He called Smith’s proposal bold and a part of a larger discussion about how Missouri’s transportation infrastructure should be paid for, but funding it with general revenue would pit it against other priorities supported by that fund, like K-12 and higher education.

“A hundred million dollars in general revenue, I believe, sets a potentially bad precedent.  I don’t know how you ever unwind that,” said Kendrick.  “I think we need to be looking at long-term solutions and dedicated funding streams to address our infrastructure problems at the state level.”

Smith said weighing the various priorities of the state against one another is the job of the legislature.

“That is exactly what we’re doing here.  We’re talking about how we prioritize transportation versus education versus public safety – that is the process that the General Assembly goes through and I think that’s a natural and appropriate process,” said Smith.

The Missouri Department of Transportation says it is about $8-billion short of being able to fund its transportation needs in the next decade.

Missouri voters in November rejected a 10-cents-per-gallon tax increase to pay for road and bridge work.

Smith’s plan is part of his proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.  He unveiled that plan Wednesday.  Over the coming weeks the House Budget Committee will propose changes to that plan, then send it to the full House for debate during the week of March 25-29.  Before the state budget is finalized it must be approved by both the House and the Senate, then the governor could approve, reject, or delay funding from it.

Missouri House endorses elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes

The Missouri House has voted to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes.

Representative Cody Smith (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Missouri law requires that offenders with one prior conviction must serve at least 40-percent of a prison term.  Those with two prior convictions must serve 50-percent, and those with three or more must serve 80-percent.

House Bill 113 would allow judges to make exceptions to those mandates if, based on certain criteria, those minimums would be unjust to the defendant or unnecessary to protect the public.

“This enables us to, as someone said, differentiate between the folks that we’re scared of and the folks that we’re mad at,” said bill sponsor Cody Smith (R-Carthage).

Supporters say reforms such as those in HB 113 would keep individuals who made bad decisions but aren’t likely to commit further offenses from spending too much time in prison, where they might learn to commit additional and more violent offenses.

Projections say HB 113 will also save the state more than $3-million by 2023, by leading to the release of an estimated 466 prisoners and thereby eliminating the cost of housing, feeding, and otherwise seeing to the needs of those individuals.

Smith notes that those projections don’t include the fact that as recently as last year, Missouri was seen as on pace to need another two prisons in the next five years.

“Not having to build new prisons and incarcerate more and more folks, and house them, having that cost of operational cost … we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Smith.

The bill drew broad bipartisan support, passing out of the House 140-17St. Louis Democrat Steven Roberts said while the bill removes minimum sentences, it doesn’t stop a judge from imposing maximum sentences when appropriate.

Representative Brandon Ellington (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“I just want to emphasize the point that what this bill does is it doesn’t lower the ceiling, so if there’s an egregious offense – if something heinous happens, there’s nothing in this bill that lowers the ceiling of discretion, but what it does is it lowers the floor,” said Roberts.

Democrats called the bill a good step in the direction of criminal justice reform, but say they hope to see more.

Kansas City representative Brandon Ellington (D) has filed legislation that would further change the laws regarding minimum sentences, and named other reforms his party supports.

“Expungement is still a hot topic; some of the laws around marijuana expungement, etcetera – not just for the medicinal but full-scale expungement, so we’re looking at things of that nature,” said Ellington.

HB 113 now goes to the Senate, where last year’s version of the same legislation was referred to a committee but did not receive a hearing.

Missouri House votes to give judges more freedom from mandatory minimum sentences

The Missouri House has voted to give judges more flexibility in sentencing by easing Missouri’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Representative Cody Smith (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

House Bill 1739 would allow judges to issue sentences below those minimums except in crimes that involved the use, attempted use, or threat of physical force, or certain non-consensual sex crimes against a minor.  A case would have to have a “substantial and compelling” reason the minimum sentence would be unjust to the defendant or would not be needed to protect the public.  The House voted Tuesday to send that legislation to the state Senate.

Carthage Representative Cody Smith (R) sponsors the bill.  He said Missouri is on course to need two new prisons that would cost the state more than $485-million over the next five years.

“We don’t have the money to build those prisons and there’s no end in sight to this trend.  If we don’t change the way we treat folks – better distinguish those that we’re mad as opposed to those we’re afraid of, as they say, we’re just going to continue on this trajectory and our incarceration rate is going to continue to climb,” said Smith.

Meanwhile, Smith said, other states where mandatory minimum sentencing laws have been eased have seen crime rates decline rather than increase.

He said nothing about HB 1739, which he calls the “Justice Safety Valve Act,” prevents a judge from handing down a sentence that follows those minimum sentencing laws.

“If it’s a bad guy in front of the court and the judge wants to throw the book at him, he can absolutely do that,” said Smith.

Representative Bruce Franks, Junior (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

Support for Smith’s bill came from both sides of the aisle, with several lawmakers including Representative Bruce Franks, Junior, (D-St. Louis) saying it is a reversal on what they called a “failed” war on drugs.

“We are finally getting to a space where we can have this bipartisan effort and this bipartisan push towards criminal justice reform; towards keeping folks out of the system that can be rehabilitated and need the help,” said Franks.

Pacific Republican Paul Curtman argued there should be no minimum sentences for any nonviolent crime.

“I think that we need to make sure that we let judges be judges, and that involves us respecting the separation of powers and letting judges look at each case-by-case scenario.  Somebody carrying a block of heroin down the street might be entirely different from the next person who comes along and the reasons they were carrying a block of heroin down the street,” said Curtman.

Legislative projections are that HB 1739 would save the state more than $3-million a year by the time it is fully implemented in Fiscal Year 2023, by decreasing the number of people incarcerated in state prisons.  That does not account for what the state would save if it does not have to build and maintain those two new prisons.

The House voted 148-0 to send the proposal to the state Senate.