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.

House votes to allow production, interstate imports of industrial hemp

The Missouri House has again endorsed getting the state into the industrial hemp industry.

Representative Paul Curtman (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The House voted 141-4 on Thursday in favor of House Bill 2034, which would exempt hemp from state law governing controlled substances and create a pilot program for hemp production.

“Missouri used to be one of the leaders in the growth and the cultivation of industrial hemp.  This is a huge cash crop.  This is not something that people use for narcotic purposes.  This is simply something that people use for manufacturing purposes,” said bill sponsor Paul Curtman (R-Pacific)“This is a substantial step in the direction of economic freedom and also property rights as it relates to what our farmers can and can’t grow or what they choose to grow.”

HB 2034 would also allow Missouri manufacturers to import hemp from other states where it can be grown.  Currently they must get it from other nations because of laws that prohibit transport across state lines.

The bill would allow the cultivation of hemp with less than .3-percent THC, the main psychoactive component of cannabis.

That earned the bill support from legislators with a law enforcement background, including Galen Higdon (R-St. Joseph), who is a retired Buchanon County deputy sheriff.  He said it has no value as an illegal drug.

“In our rural areas a lot of what we call ‘ditch weed’ just grows wild, and people from out of state that don’t know this go and harvest that and bag it and sell it and end up getting themselves in trouble with the people they’ve sold it to,” said Higdon.

Representative Allen Andrews (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Higdon said he’s learned that at one time seven different farms grew hemp in his county.

“There was a rope manufacturer, there was a burlap bag manufacturer; and those plants were grown and cut until the federal government banned marijuana throughout the United States,” said Higdon.

During debate several lawmakers raised the question of whether Curtman’s legislation should be tied to legalization of marijuana.  Others, including St. Louis Democrat Deb Lavender, said the topics should be kept separate.

“It is a different plant and I would love to see [hemp] in.  I’m not opposed to [marijuana] either, and I think there’s tremendous financial aspects that the state could benefit from, but for this purpose I think we need to get this up and going for the good of our state, for the good of our farmers,” said Lavender.

Grant City Republican Allen Andrews was one of the four “no” votes on HB 2034.  He said the state Highway Patrol opposes it and said other law enforcement consider hemp as a first step toward legalization of marijuana.

“Our own state Highway Patrol told me two days ago in a meeting that the legalization of industrial hemp will be difficult to police and even more difficult to control, requiring more manpower than is currently available, and will prove to be a detriment from the other patrol safety concerns that they have,” said Andrews.

Curtman said the Patrol is neutral on his legislation.

Farm groups have said that adding industrial hemp to a crop rotation can lead to an increase in yields.  Hemp also grows well in poor soil, including land not suitable for more typical crops such as corn or soybeans.

The bill goes to the Senate where in past years similar legislation has been passed out of a committee but has not been passed by the full chamber.

House passes bill meant to let Missouri farmers grow hemp

The state House wants to give Missouri farmers a chance to enter a new market.  It has passed a bill that would legalize the growing of industrial hemp.

Representative Paul Curtman (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Paul Curtman (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Hemp is a variety of the Cannabis sativa plant with a low concentration of THC, the psychoactive component found in marijuana.  It can be used to make products including paper, clothing, and biodegradable plastics.

House Bill 170, sponsored by Washington Republican Paul Curtman, would allow the Department of Agriculture to issue a permit to growers who pass a background check, have not been found guilty of a felony in the previous ten years, and have never been  convicted of a drug-related offense.  The Department can also inspect growers and handlers for compliance, and inspect crops to make sure nothing illegal is being grown.

“We have manufacturers in our state who use industrial hemp as a raw material in their manufacturing goods, however because it’s illegal to grow in Missouri they have to spend Missouri dollars in the economies of other states and other countries because they can’t spend the Missouri dollars in Missouri to buy this raw material from Missouri farmers,” said Curtman.

Curtman and other supporters emphasized the bill is in no way related to attempts to legalize marijuana.  He noted the concentration of THC is so low that if anyone tries to smoke it, “they’re just going to get a headache, they’re going to throw up, and they’re going to regret it for the rest of their life.”

Some representatives disagreed.  Dexter Republican Tila Hubrect argued the small amounts of THC found in hemp can cause “intoxication.”  She also said hemp and marijuana plants are “indistinguishable to the eye,” so allowing the farming of hemp could complicate law enforcement efforts.

Carrollton Republican Joe Don McGaugh said the federal farm bill allows the growing of hemp by universities and colleges and state agriculture departments for research, unlike what Curtman is proposing.

“I support industrial hemp.  I want there to be research in industrial hemp.  Why would I not?  Why would we not want another market for our farmers?” McGaugh asked.  “I just think we need to do it right.”

The bill had broad, bipartisan support, passing 126-26.  Similar legislation has been passed out of the House in several previous years, and St. Louis City Democrat Michael Butler said he’s supported it every time.

“I am, for one, tired of voting ‘yes’ on this bill.  I think it should already be law,” said Butler.

St. Louis City Democrat Bob Burns also wanted the bill to advance.

“I believe we are people with entrepreneurial spirit, and if 31 other states are doing this I don’t think we have to reinvent the wheel to create jobs right here in Missouri, and we don’t have to write every Nth degree of this law.  You’re just trying to give people an opportunity to explore it legally,” said Burns.

The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.

Missouri House advances right-to-work bill, rejects sending it to voters

The state House has advanced a right-to-work proposal but rejected Democrats’ attempt to have Missourians vote on it.

Representative Doug Beck offered an amendment that would have had a right-to-work proposal go to a vote of the people, if passed by the legislature and signed by Governor Eric Greitens.  (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Doug Beck offered an amendment that would have had a right-to-work proposal go to a vote of the people, if passed by the legislature and signed by Governor Eric Greitens. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Right-to-work is a priority for the Republican super majorities in both chambers and of Governor Eric Greitens (R).  The plan the House voted on would bar union membership or the paying of union dues from being a condition of employment.  It would make violators of that prohibition guilty of a Class “C” misdemeanor and would require county prosecutors and the state Attorney General to investigate complaints of violations.

Most Republican House members say the bill would make Missouri more competitive against neighboring states, would increase wages, and argue that requiring union membership violates employees’ rights.

Democrats say right-to-work will lower wages and would be a government overreach into contracts between unions and employers.

St. Louis Democrat Doug Beck proposed an amendment that would put right-to-work before voters if it is passed by the legislature and signed into law by Governor Greitens.

“A bill of this magnitude which will affect every working person in Missouri – everybody who makes a paycheck like I do, union and non-union alike – deserves to go to a vote of the people,” said Beck.

Representative Holly Rehder (R-Sikeston) is sponsoring right-to-work legislation in the Missouri House.  (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Holly Rehder (R-Sikeston) is sponsoring right-to-work legislation in the Missouri House. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Republicans like Paul Curtman (R-Union) say voters spoke on the issue when they elected a Republican governor to go with Republican supermajorities.

He said Democrats are calling for a vote on the bill now that there is a Republican governor who won’t veto it, but years ago they opposed a Republican bill that would have put the issue to voters at a time when Democratic Governor Jay Nixon would have vetoed it.

“They’re only using this amendment strictly for political exploitation of the rights of the people,” said Curtman.  “When it’s convenient to special interests you let the people vote.  When it’s not convenient to special interests you don’t let them vote, or you let them vote – whatever the case may be.”

Representative Clem Smith (D-Velda Village Hills) said the argument that the election of a Republican governor means the people want right-to-work doesn’t hold up.

“I didn’t hear anybody use that argument when we had a Democratic governor and he was vetoing bills,” said Smith.  “Some of the same individuals were saying, ‘Oh, that’s not what the people want.’  But the people elected him, so we can’t use that logic.”

Ballwin Republican Shamed Dogan said to put the issue to voters would defeat the purpose of having elected representatives.

“If you’re going to put a referendum clause on this piece of legislation it could also be put on every piece of legislation that this body takes up,” said Dogan.  “The purpose of a representative government, which we have here, is that we represent the will of our districts, the will of our people, collectively the will of the State of Missouri, and if we’re going to put referendum clauses on every piece of legislation that comes across here we might as well just get up and leave.”

Republican-led opposition carried a vote defeating Beck’s amendment, and the House then voted to advance the right-to-work bill 101-58.  Another vote for the bill would send it to the state Senate.