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]

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.

5 years after Hailey Owens was murdered, Representative hopes to pass bill in her name

February 18 will mark the five-year anniversary of a tragedy that shook Springfield, the State of Missouri, and the nation.  State lawmakers are hoping this will be the year the legislature passes a bill meant to honor the little girl killed that day in 2014.

“Hailey’s Law” is named for 10 year old Hailey Owens.

House Bill 185 is commonly known as “Hailey’s Law,” named for Hailey Owens.  Owens was 10 years old when she was kidnapped while walking home from a friend’s house.  She was murdered and her body was found early the next morning.

“It was incredibly traumatizing,” said State Representative Curtis Trent (R-Springfield), the House sponsor of Hailey’s Law.  “As I remember the event everybody was talking about it.  Wherever you went people were commenting on it.  A lot of people, especially people with young families, were concerned that this sort of thing could happen.  I think there was a lot of concern and outrage over the length of time it took to issue the Amber Alert.  People were questioning the efficiency of that system, and so there was just a lot of uncertainty, a lot of confusion, and a lot of anger that such a thing had happened despite all the safeguards that had been attempted to be put in place to prevent it.”

Soon after the arrest of her killer, state officials and lawmakers turned their attention to the Amber Alert System.  Though witnesses saw Owens being abducted, more than two hours passed before an Amber Alert was issued to let authorities and the public statewide know to look for her, and what her kidnapper and his vehicle looked like.

Legislators then and now said that faster issuance of an Amber Alert is unlikely to have changed the outcome in Owens’ case – she is believed to have been killed too soon after her abduction – but Trent said the case highlighted a need to expedite the issuance of Alerts.

“What we are saying is that we have these safeguards in place, we have these systems in place to try to save lives.  They should operate as effectively as possible,” said Trent.

HB 185 would require the Amber Alert System to be tied into the Missouri Uniform Law Enforcement System (MULES), the computer system that allows all law enforcement in Missouri to communicate.  That means once an officer enters information about a missing child into MULES, it would at the same time be available to the Amber Alert system.

Law enforcement in Missouri has already instituted this change.  Trent said the purpose of passing Hailey’s Law now is twofold:  to make sure those changes remain in effect by requiring them in law, and to honor Owens by naming that law after her.

“We want to prevent any future tragedy like this from occurring, and also we call the bill ‘Hailey’s Law’ because want to create a legacy and memorial for the girl that lost her life,” said Trent.

Representative Curtis Trent (left) and Jim Wood of Springfield testify to a House Committee about Hailey’s Law. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Jim Wood is the father of the man sentenced to death for killing Hailey Owens.  He told the House Committee on Crime Prevention and Public Safety that it was his truck his son was driving on the day of the crime, but law enforcement didn’t contact him until about five hours after the abduction.  At the time of the abduction he was at a restaurant about 2-minutes away from his son’s house, which is where Owens was murdered.

“I feel if I could’ve been informed, possibly I could have interceded.  It was walking distance to his house where I was, so expediting this situation is obvious to me,” said Wood.

HB 185 would also require the state’s Amber Alert System Oversight Committee to meet at least once a year to discuss ways to improve the system.  Currently there is no requirement for that committee to meet.

Trent said having that committee meet regularly to evaluate the system means there will be an ongoing effort toward getting alerts out more quickly.

“The speed is really what matters in these cases.  The faster the Amber Alert can be issued, the faster we can find the child, the lower the chance of having a tragic outcome,” said Trent.

The House and the Senate have in previous years passed the language of HB 185, just not in the same bill, so it’s never become law.

The language of HB 185 was first offered by then-representative Eric Burlison of Springfield, who this year became a state senator.  Burlison is now carrying his bill in the Senate.  Before Burlison was elected to the Senate the language was carried in that chamber by Senator Caleb Rowden (R-Columbia), who is now the Senate’s majority floor leader.  Trent believes having the support of those two lawmakers only increases the chance that Hailey’s Law will at last reach the governor.

The Committee on Crime Prevention and Public Safety will vote soon on HB 185.

Bill named for Hailey Owens aims to accelerate and improve Amber Alerts

Changes meant to get Amber Alerts out more quickly and ensure they are as effective as they can be would become law under a bill in the House.

Representative Curtis Trent (right) listens as Jim Wood testifies in favor of HB 697, Hailey's Law.  Wood said it is his son, Craig, who abducted and murdered 10-year-old Hailey Owens, for whom the legislation is named.  (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Curtis Trent (right) listens as Jim Wood testifies in favor of HB 697, Hailey’s Law. Wood said it is his son, Craig, who abducted and murdered 10-year-old Hailey Owens, for whom the legislation is named. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 697 would establish Hailey’s Law, named for 10-year-old Hailey Owens of Springfield, who was kidnapped and murdered in February, 2014.

About two-and-a-half hours passed after Owens’ abduction before an Amber Alert was issued in the case.  Though it is now known that an earlier alert would not have saved her, the case prompted lawmakers and others to press for changes to make sure alerts would be issued faster.

The legislation known as “Hailey’s Law” has been offered before in the House but did not become law.  Even so, the Highway Patrol has launched implementation of some of the system changes it would require, so that alerts would go out earlier and with fewer steps needed to issue them.

This year the bill is being carried by Representative Curtis Trent (R-Springfield), who said it’s still important to make sure those changes are required by law.

“I think everyone’s on the same page here, but we’re just trying to make sure that it’s in statute, it’s going to happen in a timely basis, and if systems change in the future that the continued integration will always be a part of that,” Trent said.

Jim Wood, the father of the man charged with abducting and killing Hailey Owens, urged members of the House Committee on Crime Prevention and Public Safety to advance HB 697.

“I reached out to [Hailey’s family] with a deep sense of grief for my own family, and a deep sense of compassion for Hailey Owens and her family,” said Wood.     “It was two-and-a-half hours later before the Amber Alert was released,” Wood recalled of the events the day his son, he said, took Owens.  “We all know if we look at child abductions that children are usually dead within 45-minutes.  We need to fix this problem, and Hailey’s Law will enhance the Amber Alert system that will protect these children.”

HB 697 would also require that the Amber Alert System Oversight Committee meet annually to discuss potential improvements to the Amber Alert System.