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.

Representative proposes easing of mandatory minimums for some crimes

The state House is being asked to consider giving judges more flexibility about when to impose minimum sentences mandated by Missouri law for many offenses.

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

House Bill 1739 would allow judges to depart from those mandatory minimums except regarding crimes that involved the use, attempted use, or threat of serious physical force, or certain non-consensual sex crimes against a minor.  The case would have to involve “substantial and compelling” reasons that the minimum sentence would be unjust to the defendant, or would not be needed to protect the public.

It’s sponsored by Carthage Representative Cody Smith (R).

“HB 1739 would permit judges to adjust the length of a prison sentence to fit the crime and a person’s role in it. If someone played a very minor role in a nonviolent offense but still deserves some prison time, the judge could give the person a shorter sentence that is more appropriate for the severity of the crime,” said Smith.

Smith said one of the issues his bill would help address is overcrowding in Missouri’s prisons.  It is predicted that Missouri is on pace to need to build two new prisons.  The cost to the state to build and operate those is projected at $485-million over the next five years.

Many offenders in Missouri prisons are serving sentences stemming from nonviolent drug offenses.  Smith said in such cases, easing mandatory minimum sentencing requirements could allow judges to instead require drug treatment and other programs in lieu of prison time.  Smith said treatment outside of prison is typically more effective.

“It’s my understanding that drug treatment in prisons is largely unsuccessful and it’s much more successful outside of prisons through programs like drug courts.  To have people working with drug courts or through their probation or parole while they can maintain a job, be with their family presumably, be productive citizens I think is much better than having them incarcerated and trying to do that through prison sentencing,” said Smith.  “[Drug issues are] more of a health care problem at this point rather than a criminal justice issue, in my mind.”

Smith said more than 30 states have reduced, eliminated, or reformed mandatory minimum sentences and in those states crime rates have dropped.  He thinks the changes to sentencing laws contributed to those drops.

“Once you have a prison sentence you lose your job, often times you lose your family, you are unable to maintain whatever positive momentum you have going in your life.  I can see how you would very easily turn back to crime or drugs when you get out of prison, or do something in prison that would keep you there for a longer time,” said Smith.  “If you can maintain some semblance of a normal lifestyle – again with your family, with a job, and work with something like a drug court – then you have incentive to turn your life around, and that’s been the case in those states.”

The projected fiscal impact of HB 1739 says it could save Missouri more than $3.1-million once fully implemented.  Smith notes that does not include how much the state could save if it is able to avoid building and operating any new prisons.

The bill has been approved by the House Committee on Crime Prevention and Public Safety.  It faces another committee, which could vote whether to send it to the full house for consideration.