Many Missourians are familiar with the term “State of the Union” address, and may tune in or bother to read news coverage of the annual speech by the President of the United States. Many are also familiar with the “State of the State” address which we received from Gov. Parson on January 15. Many fewer have heard of the “State of the Judiciary” address which was delivered to a Joint Session of the Missouri General Assembly on January 22nd by Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice George W. Draper III.

Just as the executive branch speeches lay out a vision for future priorities, so does this annual speech from the judiciary. A State of the Judiciary address can even lead to legislative action to codify calls to reform, as was sparked by the remarkable speech of Chief Justice Ray Price in 2010. In that speech, Price stated that the “war on drugs”, “three strikes and you’re out”, and other efforts to be tough on crime had strained the state budget without reducing crime. Price said: “Perhaps the biggest waste of resources in all of state government is the over-incarceration of nonviolent offenders and our mishandling of drug and alcohol offenders.”

Many reforms have passed since that speech. Included in those reforms was the massive overhaul of state criminal codes in 2014, a multi-year effort, led by former senators Bob Dixon (R-Springfield) and Jolie Justus (D-Kansas City).

Will Chief Justus Draper’s address have a similar impact? We hope so! 

Draper’s speech, deeply grounded in U.S. and Missouri history, as well as his family’s history, is a potent encapsulation of progress made, but also justice delayed and even denied. He noted early in his remarks that “Of the four women who have served on our Court, three are currently on its bench, and I am only the second African-American.”

Draper celebrated progress made in the 2019 Legislative Session, including items that were priorities for Empower Missouri:

  • Expansion of treatment courts for veterans
  • Significant changes to our rules governing misdemeanor and felony criminal procedures, including pretrial release
  • Rules governing ordinance violations so that persons were not kept in jails for inability to pay fees and fines (what we have called “debtors’ prisons”)

Empower Missouri advocated to secure the public defender system in Missouri. Draper pointed out dangers in allowing that system to remain under-funded and understaffed, underscoring a call to reform that we have made for years:

“To be sure, all attorneys in public service work long, hard hours, and many are underpaid and under-recognized. But if criminal cases cannot be moved efficiently through the system because of overloaded attorneys, we risk leaving those who are guilty on the street, those who are not guilty unable to return to being productive members of society, and victims and their families powerless to find closure and move forward with their lives. Together, we all share the burden of our state constitutional mandate demanding that ‘justice shall be administered without sale, denial or delay.’”

As we continue to convene the Smart Sentencing Coalition, Empower Missouri works toward the day when there is equal justice before the law for every person in our state, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, income, or any other human characteristic. We convene our first Criminal Justice Advocacy Day of 2020 on January 26, and you may register here to join us.

You may read Chief Justice Draper’s remarks in the Journal of the Missouri House of Representatives at this link.

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