It seems as if many of the issues today that are being debated in our state and federal legislatures are seen as partisan, but criminal justice reform is an exception. Criminal justice reform is a great example of how bipartisanship can really work!
Legislators and advocates from both sides of the political spectrum are working together to reduce recidivism, decrease prison populations and costs, and increase opportunities for returning citizens to succeed in their communities. For example, just this past year, the First Step Act was signed into law on the federal level. This new law decreases sentencing lengths and increases opportunities for rehabilitation and release.
Similarly, Missouri legislators are working together to address state level criminal justice issues. Pre-filing in Missouri started on December 1 and already bills have been filed by members of both political parties that would take positives steps towards criminal justice reform. Empower Missouri will be working on passing many of these bills in 2020. These include:
Studies have demonstrated that, as a general matter, people age out of crime. For most offenses—and in most societies—crime rates rise in the early teenage years, peak during the mid-to-late teens, and subsequently decline dramatically. Not only are most violent crimes committed by people under 30, but even the criminality that continues after that declines drastically after age 40 and even more so after age 50. Missouri, as is many other states, is keeping people in prison longer with continued increased costs. Just one inmate costs over $50 daily. While on the other hand it costs much less to monitor someone in the community through electronic monitoring. House Bill 1534 would allow for parole hearings for certain incarcerated individuals over the age of 65. This new law would allow folks who have served a large portion of their long sentence and who are over a certain age and no longer a risk to the community the opportunity for a parole hearing and the opportunity to return to their community.
Removing barriers to access a job
Reducing barriers to re-entry will reduce crime rates and reduce recidivism rates. We know that almost everyone who enters prisons will one day re-enter their community, but we also know that almost 2/3 of those re-entering end up returning to prison within three years. Finding ways to better facilitate that return to society helps break the cycle of crime. Working to reform the collateral consequences people face when returning home is one way to increase opportunities for a successful reintegration into life beyond bars.
One way to reform collateral consequences is remove barriers that returning citizens have getting and keeping a job. For example, Senate Bill 647 would remove blanket bans on professional licenses for individuals with certain felony convictions. This bill would make it easier for formerly incarcerated individuals to obtain professional licenses, which in turn helps individuals get and keep jobs.
Another employment-related bill that has been pre-filed is House Bill 1468. Currently in Missouri, if you have a felony conviction of any type on your record, you are unable to work in an establishment that sells or serves alcohol or sells lottery tickets. This law greatly limits the jobs that formerly incarcerated individuals can access. This bill would not allow the state to deny someone the ability to work in an establishment and sell those items based on just a former felony conviction. This bill would open up employment opportunities to thousands of formerly incarcerated individuals living in our state.
Expanding expungement opportunities
Those with felony convictions are never fully able to move on from their crimes. Even after they have served their time and paid for their crime, the conviction will be on every background check – for a job, or for rental housing, etc.- forever. People are never able to fully escape from their past mistakes. These past crimes impede their ability to get hired for jobs, find quality housing, or enter some educational programs.
Over the last few years, legislation has been enacted in Missouri that allows individuals with certain convictions on their records the opportunity (after a number of years), to petition and pay the court to have their convictions expunged from their records. This record expungement allows individuals a better chance to access housing and jobs, because these past convictions will no longer show up on background checks. For example, Senate Bill 519, has been filed for 2020 to expand the convictions that could be expunged through petition. Empower Missouri will work to continue to expand this list.
This pay for expungement type of bill is a great start, but is hard to obtain, especially for someone who does not have money or access to lawyers. Because of those reasons, Empower Missouri is hoping a Clean Slate bill will also be filed. This bill would set up a system that would automatically expunge someone’s record (of certain crimes after a certain number of years) without them having to petition the court or pay any fees. This Clean Slate legislation will help those folks who do not have the money, knowledge, or luxury of time to petition the court. This change would give access to housing and jobs to a large numbers of people with past convictions on their records. Details of this type of bill will be forthcoming.
There are many other criminal justice reform related bills that have been filed and will continue to be filed as session begins. To see the whole list criminal justice related bills that Empower Missouri is following visit the Smart Sentencing Coalition webpage.
With bi-partisan sponsorship of multiple criminal justice reform related bills as well as a diverse set of advocates working together on these issues, the future of criminal justice reform in Missouri seems bright. Empower Missouri along with the advocates who are a part of the Smart Sentencing Coalition will be right there pushing it along in 2020. We hope you will join us!