Testimony in Support of HB 1545 – Reducing Minimum Prison Terms for People with Disabilities

Date: February 22, 2024
To: Chairman Lane Roberts and Members of the House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee
From: Gwen Smith, Criminal Justice Policy Manager, Empower Missouri
Re: Support for HB 1545

Empower Missouri has been committed for over 120 years to improving the quality of life for all Missouri residents through advocacy and policy change. Since our inception, Empower Missouri has focused on the criminal justice system and its impacts. Our Community Justice Coalition consists of community advocates and organizations from across the state who work with those who have been impacted by the criminal justice system. Many coalition members are formerly incarcerated or have currently incarcerated loved ones, and all are connected by a vision for a future without mass incarceration. 

HB 1545, sponsored by Rep. Bill Allen, would reduce the minimum prison term percentages for individuals with disabilities who have reached the age of 60. Missouri code defines disability as “a mental, physical, or developmental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities… whether the impairment is congenital or acquired by accident, injury or disease, and where such impairment is verified by medical findings.”

Research shows that people with disabilities are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Compared to 15 percent  of the general population in the US, 40 percent of people in state prisons have a documented disability. People with disabilities are more likely to experience victimization, be arrested, be charged with a crime, and serve longer prison sentences once convicted, than those without disabilities. Incarceration rates are higher due to a combination of factors, including individuals with disabilities being exploited by other people (i.e. coerced into committing a crime and taking the fall for others), displaying “inappropriate responses” in police presence such as running away or hiding, telling police what they believe they want to hear in order to be left alone, and/or waiving Miranda rights without understanding the repercussions. 

Once incarcerated, prison can be a particularly isolating and dangerous environment for those with disabilities. Individuals with disabilities risk higher rates of victimization from other incarcerated individuals and from guards, increasing their likelihood of worsening physical or mental health symptoms. Individuals with mental health issues may often be more likely to exhibit behavioral challenges once incarcerated, often from not having proper access to medications and/or therapy or simply not understanding the rules and requirements of prison. This may make it harder for them to receive parole. 

Older adults also face heightened risks inside prison, meaning that older adults with disabilities are doubly vulnerable. Prison is not an easy environment for anyone to live in, and the challenges of incarcerated life increase as people age. The physical demands of daily life in prison can be a struggle for people as they age, such as walking far distances in facilities for meals or recreation time, or keeping up with assigned work duties. Individuals with disabilities who are incarcerated for long periods of time may deteriorate over time, experiencing worsening symptoms or adding a dual diagnosis. 

It is important to remember the decision to parole an individual remains with the parole board regardless of the minimum percentage they must serve before becoming parole eligible. This is true now, and it would still be true under this bill.  This ensures that those who pose significant risks to the community can remain incarcerated at the direction of the parole board while providing key pathways for older individuals with disabilities to be monitored under community supervision rather than in our prisons. 

The fiscal analysis for HB 1545 found that if passed, this measure would save the state up to $841,300 in the first year, $1.2 million the following year, and up to $2.5 million annually when fully implemented in FY 2034. The average cost to incarcerate someone in Missouri is $57.16 per day, and those costs are even higher for many individuals with disabilities due to heightened health care needs. There are far better uses for taxpayer dollars than incarcerating individuals who pose very little risk to the community due to a combination of age and disability. This bill would also help provide relief to understaffed prison facilities around the state. 

Overall, reductions to the minimum prison term structure are based on sound criminal justice research. Shorter sentences promote better reentry outcomes by reducing the time people are away from their families and communities. Missouri recently became the first state to sign on to the federal Reentry 2030 initiative, committing to reducing recidivism and increasing reentry success. HB 1545 would help our state achieve these goals.

Empower Missouri urges this committee to vote do-pass for HB 1545. Thank you for your time and consideration of this very important matter.

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