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Missouri House Plan Would Undo Some Minimum Prison Sentences

Meiying Wu

Rethinking the benefit of prisons, Missouri House leaders are backing legislation that could effectively undo mandatory minimum sentencing laws for many nonviolent criminals.

The Missouri legislation reflects a national trend toward more lenient prison terms for some drug offenders and other low-level criminals, as governments shift toward alternative strategies that are focused more specifically on rehabilitation. Missouri's prison population peaked at 33,243 in September 2017 but has since fallen to 30,260, the Department of Corrections said Monday. 

In recent years, Missouri has had the eighth-highest incarceration rate among the states. Republican House Speaker Elijah Haahr, who was elected by colleagues last week to the chamber's top spot, implored lawmakers during an opening day speech to provide opportunities to "those in a broken criminal justice system."

One way to do that is to reform the state's sentencing laws, he said. "Both in the state and nationally, we've got a lot of people that are in jail, especially on nonviolent offenses. These are people that could come out and they could probably go to work tomorrow if we gave them the opportunity," Haahr, of Springfield, told reporters.

Haahr told The Associated Press that he believes there is momentum to pass legislation this year in Missouri, following a similar move by Congress. President Donald Trump signed a law last month reducing prison sentences for some federal drug crimes and boosting prison rehabilitation programs.

Haahr is backing legislation sponsored by House Budget Committee Chairman Cody Smith. The measure would allow judges to make exceptions to a state law requiring offenders to serve 40, 50 or 80 percent of their prison terms, depending on their number of previous prison convictions. Judges would weigh the person's character, chances of rehabilitation and whether a mandatory minimum prison term is necessary to protect the public.

But sentencing exceptions could not be granted for offenses involving serious physical force, firearms or most sexual crimes. Smith sponsored a similar bill last year that the House passed late in the session but that stalled in the Senate. He said his intention is that Missouri's minimum sentencing law no longer would be mandatory for nonviolent crimes, but that a requirement for dangerous felons to serve 85 percent of their sentences would remain.

"If we can keep folks out of prison, get them rehabilitated, put them on a different track, not only does it lead to better outcomes in their lives, but .... ultimately the hope would be that we could avoid having to build these two new prison facilities at hundreds of millions of dollars of expense," said Smith, of Carthage. Smith's legislation has support from House Democrats, who have been pushing for several years for a variety of criminal justice changes. 

Many of Missouri's minimum sentencing laws date to the 1980s and 1990s, when officials were trying to lock up people for longer to prevent crime. Missouri had about 18,870 prisoners in January 1996, when then-Gov. Mel Carnahan presented a budget touting that he had signed "some of the toughest anti-crime bills in the country."

Carnahan's budget book declared: "Increasing prison capacity is crucial to controlling crime." Republican Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz listed "safe communities" among his priorities in his opening day remarks. He did not specifically mention criminal justice legislation, but he told reporters that he would review the House proposals.

"I don't necessarily know that the system is broken," said Schatz, of Sullivan. "But there may be some elements that probably need to be looked at."

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