House proposes a chance at parole for certain inmates over 65 serving life

The House has voted to ensure that Missouri inmates who are at least 65 years old get a chance at parole.

Representative Tom Hannegan (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 352 would apply to a small number of inmates who have served at least 30 years of a sentence, who have no prior violent felony convictions, are not convicted sex offenders, and are serving a sentence of life without parole with a 50-year minimum.

St. Charles Republican Tom Hannegan sponsors the bill.  He said that sentence was replaced with a 30-year minimum in the 1980s.

“We are trying to give these folks, who have become elderly in prison and are a burden on the Missouri department of justice health system, the same opportunity for parole that they would’ve had if they had committed their crimes a few years after they were convicted,” said Hannegan.

Democrats strongly supported the bill.  Representative Barbara Washington (D-Kansas City) said just as modern DNA has proven some people innocent in old cases, this legislation reflects how the state’s law has changed to eliminate overly harsh prison terms.

“This is an opportunity to correct some of the miscarriage of justice that we’ve had in the past,” said Washington.

Some Republicans opposed the bill, saying the victims of the crimes committed by the inmates this bill would affect deserve justice by having the original sentences carried out.

Carl Junction representative Bob Bromley (R) said a high school friend of his was murdered, as was the sister of a friend of his.  He reached out to relatives of both of those victims about HB 352.

“They are adamantly opposed to this because they believe we are re-litigating what has already been litigated in the past.  They believe that they have a written contract with the judicial system and also with the State of Missouri that these people were going to be put away for life,” said Bromley.

Former Joplin Police Chief Lane Roberts (R-Joplin) said sentences of life without parole are often offered as an alternative to the death sentence in particularly egregious crimes.  That is generally after the victim’s family has agreed to accept that as an outcome.

“When someone is sentenced under a statute that says, ‘Life without parole means a 50-year minimum,’ that’s the promise that we made to the family at the time,” said Roberts.  “The promise doesn’t change just because our philosophy changes.”

“Whenever we take today’s philosophy and apply it to yesterday’s conduct, somehow the victims fade into the landscape like they never existed,” said Roberts.

Hannegan said the bill wouldn’t fly in the face of past sentences.

“The [legislature] has already made the change in the sentencing law.  Therefore this is not breaking a contract with the jury, but rather allowing equivalent sentencing across the board,” said Hannegan.

Representative Lane Roberts (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representative Steve Butz’s (D-St. Louis) sister was raped and murdered about 10 years ago in Washington State.  He described to his colleagues having to identify her body, having to wait several days before her body was released to be buried, and going through the court trial.

He said her killer is serving the same kind of sentence as the people this bill would affect.

“Our family, consistent with our [belief that] ‘every life is important,’ we requested that this perpetrator not be given the death penalty, and he was not.  My mother, my father, and all 10 of the surviving siblings testified to that case,” said Butz.

He said forgiveness is key for a family to heal.

“With all the other requirements that this inmate in this case would have to meet, it’s for those reasons that I urge the body to support this bill,” said Butz.  “It’s great to be merciful.”

HB 352 is part of a larger, overall focus on criminal justice reform that is a bipartisan priority this year.  Its language has been included in a broad reform package, House Committee Bill 2.  That bill is still before a House committee.

An inmate receiving a parole hearing under this bill must be found by the parole board to have met certain criteria to be eligible for parole.  He or she must have a record of good conduct while in prison; must have demonstrated rehabilitation; must have an institutional risk factor score of no more than one and a mental health score of no more than three; and must have a workable parole plan that includes the support of family and community.

An offender who is not granted parole would be reconsidered every two years.

With a vote of 90-60, HB 352 now goes to the Senate for its consideration.

House votes to extend insurance coverage for children with developmental disabilities

The House has voted to require insurance companies to cover therapies for developmentally disabled children in Missouri, which would expand on a 2010 law that required coverage for therapy for children with autism.

House Bill 399 would prohibit companies from limiting coverage in fully insured plans for physical, cognitive, emotional, mental, or developmental disabilities.  That is less than one-third of the existing plans in the state, covering somewhere between 1,800 and 6,000 children.

The legislation is sponsored by Rocheport representative Chuck Basye (R).  He said for children to be able to continue treatments when they are young could help them avoid long-term needs and issues later in life.

“Speech therapy can prevent a child from needing a [gastrostomy] tube or from aspirating and getting pneumonia; physical therapy can prevent very expensive orthopedic surgeries and lifelong issues; and occupational therapies can prevent a child from injuries,” said Basye.

One of the driving forces behinds Basye’s interest in the issue is his relationship with a constituent, 9-year-old Nathan, whose mother Basye met during his campaign for reelection.   Nathan is one of the children who could benefit from the passage of HB 399, if only indirectly.

“Nathan and I have this connection through our dogs and he found out I’d lost one of my dogs very unexpectedly last July, and a couple of days later we were at this fundraising event for another candidate and he learned through his mother that I’d lost my dog, and he made an attempt on his own to go get me a little balloon animal dog and came over and gave it to me,” said Basye.  “I thought that was pretty cool.  I’ll never forget that moment.”

Kirkwood representative Deb Lavender (D) is a physical therapist.  She said often, children will start therapy but insurance will cover a limited number of sessions.

“So many complications can occur after that.  They don’t fully maximize their physical ability, mental abilities, capacities, and so being able to extend this therapy is so critical for these children at that time in their life,” said Lavender.

St. Louis Democrat Steve Butz called the bill well-thought-out and a good compromise between parents who were advocating for a change, and the insurance industry.

“These therapies are medicine for these developmentally disabled children.  They are medicines that improve the quality of life, help these children attain goals they could never attain, and the costs of the therapies are quite inexpensive when compared to other experimental drugs and other pharmaceuticals that, say, a child with leukemia might need for his or her survival,” said Butz.

HB 399 would not cost the state anything.  It is projected it would increase premiums for holders of fully insured plans by about 39-cents per member, per month.

The House voted 129-5 to send the bill to the Senate, which last week passed its version of this legislation.