Members of the House Democratic Caucus and the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus outlined legislation to strengthen and reform the criminal justice system in Missouri by correcting practices that disparately punish the poor, removing obstacles that make it harder for people who've served their time to become productive citizens and ensuring the rights of children are protected in legal proceedings.
“Maintaining a strong criminal justice system means addressing its weaknesses,” said House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield. “If we truly want to address crime in our state, we must end counterproductive practices that come down harder on poor defendants and make it more difficult for past offenders to find jobs and contribute to society.”
In his recent State of the Judiciary address to lawmakers, Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Zel Fischer announced new rules the court is instituting to avoid jailing people awaiting trial who are neither a danger to the public nor a flight risk but simply too poor to afford cash bail. The Money Bail Reform Act of 2019, House Bill 666, sponsored by Missouri Legislative Black Caucus Chairman Steve Roberts, D-St. Louis, would codify many of the reforms being implemented by the court.
“When a poor defendant sits in jail awaiting trial while a wealthier defendant can go free by pulling out his wallet, it calls the fairness of our criminal justice system into question,” Roberts said. “We shouldn’t lock up people for being poor. Not only is it unjust, it produces a cascade of negative effects when people who haven’t yet been convicted of anything lose their jobs or homes because they can’t afford bail. I’m encouraged the Supreme Court is embracing reform, and the legislature can build on the court’s efforts by passing this legislation.”
Preventing courts from imposing onerous financial burdens on poor defendants is also the purpose of House Bill 415 sponsored by state Rep. Alan Gray, D-Black Jack. Under HB 415, courts would be required to offer community service to indigent defendants whom the court determines have insufficient income to pay fines, fees or court costs. Gray’s legislation would apply to cases involving traffic infractions, local ordinance violations or class D misdemeanors.
“People can’t give the court money they don’t have,” Gray said. “Community service is an appropriate alternative to punish offenders without subjecting them to unrealistic financial conditions they could never meet.”
House Bill 508 sponsored by state Rep. Bruce Franks, D-St. Louis, would restore voting rights to people with felony convictions who have been released from prison but remain on probation or parole. Under existing law, voting rights of convicted felons aren’t restored until they are discharged from probation or parole. The speaker has already referred HB 508 to the House Elections and Elected Officials Committee.
“Excluding people from the duties and obligations or citizenship won’t make them better citizens,” Franks said. “If we want to fully integrate former inmates back into society, their voting rights should be restored upon release.”
Doing better by those who’ve been wrongfully convicted is the goal of House Bill 692 sponsored by state Rep. LaKeySha Bosley, D-St. Louis. The bill would double the amount restitution the state can pay to someone who has been exonerated by DNA testing of a crime for which they were convicted from $50 to $100 for every day spent behind bars.
“Wrongful convictions should never happen,” Bosley said. “One-hundred dollars a day is not a lot of restitution for something that should never happen.”
For people whose only offense is marijuana possession, the record of their conviction often proves a barrier to getting a job. House Bill 292 sponsored by state Rep. Barbara Washington, D-Kansas City, would require courts to expunge records of those convicted of possessing 35 grams of marijuana or less.
“Marijuana convictions have been a thorn in the side for many people,” Washington said. “From restricted housing to unemployment to student financial aid denials, people with marijuana convictions have suffered long enough. Those who have been convicted of possessing small amounts should not have their lives altered, especially in light of the growing legalization of medical and recreational use.”
Helping former inmates find employment upon release is also the goal of House Bill 153 sponsored by state Rep. Brandon Ellington, D-Kansas City. The bill would require the Missouri Department of Corrections to participate in the Federal Bonding Program so that all working inmates are bonded prior to release and also assist inmates who have completed the necessary requirements to receive certification in a particular field.
“One of the greatest barriers for ex-offenders is finding stable employment,” Ellington said. “By granting certification and bonding to those who qualify, we expect to see a decrease in the recidivism rate.”
House Bill 42 sponsored by state Rep. Ingrid Burnett, D-Kansas City, would better protect children in legal proceedings by not allowing a child to waive their right to legal counsel unless the waiver is made in open court and in writing and the judge has determines the waiver was made knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily. The speaker has referred HB 42 to the House Children and Families Committee.
“Simply put, children are children,” Burnett said. “We don’t allow them to sign legal documents such as contracts or deeds, and we shouldn’t permit them to sign away their constitutional rights. Having a defense attorney is critical to fairness, accuracy and identifying alternative solutions that lead to better outcomes, not only for the juvenile, but also for the state.”