The major take-away for me from the 2019 Legislative Session is the importance of working in coalition with others for evidence-based public policies. Empower Missouri convened four coalitions during this Session, and each contributed to a major victory for social justice. Those coalitions are:
- The Smart Sentencing Coalition
- The MO HIV Justice Coalition
- The Housing for All Coalition
- The Coalition Against Hunger
It was a big year in criminal justice reform!
We convened the Smart Sentencing Coalition in August, 2018. We then met with Gov. Parson’s staff before the Legislative Session started and shared our views. We suggested he endorse mandatory minimum reform in his State of the State Address. In that speech, he pledged not to build more prisons and talked about alternatives. Speaker of the House Elijah Haahr named Rep. Shamed Dogan Chair of the Special House Committee on Criminal Justice, and through this and other committees, a number of our long-time priorities moved forward, including:
Ending Debtors’ Prisons
HB 192 (DeGroot) reforms the debtors’ prison policies of some municipal jails. The legislation specifies that defendants cannot be jailed for inability to pay fines or fees. It also states that while sheriffs can seek reimbursement from defendants for past jail stays they must do so through civil debt collection and not through threat of imprisonment.
Mandatory Prison Time Reform
HB 192 also contained the Mandatory Prison Time reform language that had been in HB 113 (Smith) and SCS SBs 8 & 74 (Emery & May). Implementation is retroactive and is projected to reduce prison population by 925 by 2023.
Expansion of Expungement
SB 1 (Curls) adds new categories of crimes to the list where expungement is possible. Expungement (sealing arrest/court records) helps reduce collateral consequences of convictions – like difficulty securing housing, employment and education. HB 397 (Coleman) allows expungement of prostitution convictions for persons who were under 18 at the time (and makes some good changes to child care and foster care as well).
Improving Access to Medicaid for Returning Citizens
SB 514 (Sater bill originally about foster care that became an omnibus) includes a provision from Sen. Hough that MO HealthNet benefits shall be suspended, rather than cancelled or terminated, for offenders entering into a correctional facility or jail. Citizens re-entering the community need steady access to necessary medicines and care.
Community Alternatives to Incarceration
HB 547 (Griffith) creates a veterans’ treatment court. Community alternatives to incarceration can produce better results on addiction issues.
Modernizing HIV Policies
HB 166 (McCreery) and HB 167 (Rehder) sought to update Missouri’s outdated and medically inaccurate HIV-specific criminal codes. Rep. Redher also sponsored HB 168 to allow needle & syringe access for harm reduction. While these bills did not pass, we were able to move them through two committees and have an hour of floor debate – major progress! We especially thank our terrific bi-partisan legislative champions and members of the MO HIV Justice Coalition (which we staff) for their hard work. LaTrischa Miles, a founder of the coalition, will receive our Elaine Aber Humanitarian Award on June 8 for her incredible advocacy.
Safe, Affordable, Accessible Housing
HCS HBs 243 & 544 was Truly Agreed and Finally Passed (Neely). Sen. Arthur was Senate handler since she had a similar bill, SB 60. The bill offers more housing security for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. Some municipalities have passed strict nuisance ordinances that were leading to victims of violence being evicted as their apartments were considered “problem properties.” This legislation should prevent evictions for many.
SB 28 (Hegeman) to restart the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program came close, but did not pass. We said clearly that Missouri’s housing crisis is larger than can be solved by LIHTC, and significant additional direct investment is needed!
We stopped HB 899 (Billington), a bill that would have shortened the eviction process, potentially increasing homelessness and the budgets of municipal sheriff’s departments. We delayed the bill in the Rules Committee and then requested that the Speaker of the House not add it to the House calendar. The bill did not appear on the calendar.
We led the effort and blocked SB 4 (Sater), including briefing the Missouri Health Partnership and Kids Win Missouri on their weekly calls. This bill would have taken away Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for those not exempted who could not document 20 hours per week of approved work activities.
Protecting Families on TANF
We were also able to stop HB 474 (Eggleston). The bill would have banned use of electronic benefits transfer cards to access to cash for families on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. We do not live in a cashless society, and families on TANF especially need access to cash (for laundry, paying a neighbor for a ride, etc.).
Preventing Loss of Medicaid
We joined with Missouri Health Care for All to block passage of HB 183 (Trent) & SB 76 (Sater). These bills would have forced work-hour-tracking for some on Medicaid. We also authored a guest column on this issue that appeared in the Southeast Missourian and drew attention to the steep drop in Medicaid enrollment among Missouri children.
Protecting Our November Ballot Box Victories
Efforts to amend the language of Amendment 1 (CLEAN) or to reduce the increase in the minimum wage were defeated, thanks to the coalitions built on these issues.
As a member of Kids Win Missouri, a coalition that we helped to start a few years ago when two major and long-standing children’s issue advocacy organizations ceased operation, we had the following victories:
- New funding for the Quality Assurance Report, increased funding in community health workers, and increased funding for home visiting programs.
- Nathan’s Law passed, setting ratios for staff to child ratios in unlicensed child care homes
- Authorizing language for school districts to contract with early childhood programs
During the interim period before the 2020 Legislative Session convenes, we will be working to strengthen these coalitions. Meetings with key state and local officials will be set. A new employee will be hired to staff the MO HIV Justice Coalition. We will media events connected to the release of new research – like the Vehicle Stops Report (to be released on May 31) and the Out of Reach Report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition on June 18 which details the level of wages needed to secure stable housing in Missouri.
In order to stay current about the latest opportunities for and threats to justice, dial in to our Under the Dome and Across the State (#UDAS) briefing calls for social justice advocates which now move to a once-per-month format on the fourth Thursday of each month (unless rescheduled due to a holiday). On the last #UDAS call, participants agreed that they prefer 10 a.m. as a start time, and we will implement this change on our June 28 call.