We’re headed into the final two weeks of Missouri’s legislative session, which means that legislators from every corner of the state are in a mad dash to amend their bills onto any related piece of legislation that is moving. More than 2,200 pieces of legislation were filed this session across both chambers, and with ten days remaining in session, just two have been truly agreed and finally passed by the legislature. This means that we’re likely to see some very large packages of legislation come to the House and Senate floors over the next two weeks, many of them over 100 pages long and stuffed full of legislation that was never really properly vetted in the first place.
Empower Missouri is tracking one such provision that has been amended onto multiple bills, and it’s the subject of today’s Weekly Perspective: minimum prison terms, often referred to as mandatory minimums. The language in question was filed separately by three members of the House of Representatives; none of those three bills even received a committee hearing. It was also included in HB 301, which made headlines across the state as the first criminal justice omnibus bill out of the gate back in January. However, the primary provision in HB 301 was a proposal for Missouri’s governor to be able to appoint a special prosecutor for a period of five years to address violent crime in the City of St. Louis. This proposal was considered extremely controversial and decried by most legislators who represent the City of St. Louis, and many Democrats across the state. A media storm erupted around the issue, ultimately resulting in MO Attorney General Andrew Bailey filing a petition in quo warranto against the City’s elected Circuit Attorney, Kim Gardner, alleging that she is unfit to hold her job.
This article is not about Kim Gardner, the circuit attorney’s office, or crime in the City of St. Louis. But, as you can imagine, every single hearing on HB 301 revolved almost entirely around this single issue. But HB 301, as originally filed, was nineteen pages long. The language about the circuit attorney’s office only takes up the first two pages. So, what else is in the bill?
Most people, from legislators to lobbyists to advocates, would be hard-pressed to answer that question. And yet, language from this bill, which has technically been fully vetted and passed out of the House of Representatives and through a Senate Committee, is now being amended onto other criminal justice bills with little scrutiny. We’re here to sound the alarm and to demand that the legislature take another look at this very consequential issue.
Under current Missouri law, there is a minimum prison term structure that applies to 84 felony offenses, primarily violent or sexual in nature, including child abuse, arson, assault, burglary, hijacking a bus (yes, that has its own charge code in Missouri), kidnapping, child molestation, human trafficking, or murder. The law is designed to punish repeat offenders more severely than first-time offenders, with the following structure:
- If a person has one previous prison commitment for a felony, the minimum prison term which the offender must serve shall be 40% of his or her sentence
- If a person has two previous prison commitments for felonies, the minimum prison term which the offender must serve shall be 50% of his or her sentence
- If a person has three or more previous prison commitments for felonies, the minimum prison term which the offender must serve shall be 80% of his or her sentence.
When limited to the most dangerous crimes in our state, you can understand the rationale for this structure. If someone is incarcerated for child abuse, and then is released from prison and abuses another child, most people would find it logical to impose a harsher punishment for the second offense. Unfortunately, research on this topic says otherwise. A meta-analysis of 116 studies on incarceration and reentry shows that longer prison sentences have no effect on recidivism. The abstract of this study reads, in part, “Incarceration cannot be justified on the grounds it affords public safety by decreasing recidivism. Prisons are unlikely to reduce reoffending unless they can be transformed into people-changing institutions on the basis of available evidence on what works organizationally to reform offenders.”
If we were truly concerned about making our communities safer, we would be seeking to truly overhaul our prison system so that people would be afforded the opportunity to truly change their lives. Unfortunately, our system is still primarily focused on punishment, rather than rehabilitation. And this session, lawmakers are poised to double-down on this failed tactic and require longer prison sentences for exponentially more crimes, regardless of the fact that there is no data to support this approach.
The new law related to minimum prison terms would apply the structure detailed above to all felony offenses in the state. Our team has attempted to quantify how many new felonies would be added, and we’re still counting. Missouri’s current charge code manual is 107 pages long with approximately 30 charges on every page, so we’re talking about over 3,000 criminal charges to review and code. Our small team hasn’t gotten it done yet, but we’ve counted over 300 additional charges so far. Examples? Stealing cable. Causing a dog to pursue a live animal propelled by a device. (Confused? Us, too.) Disrupting a house of worship. Dog fighting. Failure to pay child support. Invasion of privacy. Library theft. Manufacturing fake IDs. We would argue that many of these offenses shouldn’t be felonies at all (misdemeanor seems more appropriate for most), but that, certainly, folks shouldn’t be saddled with additional prison time for these types of offenses.
It is also important to remember that many individuals who commit crimes do so as a course of behavior related to addiction, mental illness, or poverty. Poverty-related felonies in Missouri include passing a bad check, forgery, prostitution, perjury in a public assistance application, theft, trespassing, and child non-support arrears. Individuals committing these offenses are often doing so out of desperation; they often aren’t thinking rationally and therefore are undeterred by the threat of a longer sentence. Punishing them with elongated prison sentences will do nothing but serve as a burden to the taxpayer. Individuals struggling with addiction, mental illness, and poverty need community-based services and support, not incarceration.
According to the Annual Offender Report FY21 put out by the Dept. of Corrections, approximately 15-20% of new admissions to Missouri prisons in the fiscal year 2021 were incarcerated on charges that would be added to the minimum sentencing structure by proposed legislation in question. In fact, eight of the forty most frequently sentenced offenses in Missouri DOC are not currently subject to minimum term requirements but would be included in the proposed escalation of the structure, including tampering with a motor vehicle, forgery, and non-support. These charges already carry average sentence lengths of 5 years, 6 years, and 3.5 years respectively. Increasing the minimum terms to be served for these offenses will increase Missouri’s prison population without making communities any safer.
In addition to coming with an enormous human cost, it would also be hugely expensive to taxpayers. The state would foot the bill for the additional time that we’re incarcerating these nonviolent offenders, and in many instances, families of incarcerated individuals will end up on public assistance, with a wage earner removed from their home long-term. Children of incarcerated parents may end up in the state’s highly dysfunctional foster care system. And, the state simultaneously loses tax revenue from incarcerated workers. It’s a lose-lose-lose situation.
We’ll be keeping a close eye on these bills as they move through the final stages of legislative debate, and we’ll be calling on legislators to remove this harmful provision from any bill where it gets attached. Want to help? Keep an eye out for Action Alerts from Empower Missouri over the next two weeks– we’ll let you know when to reach out to your lawmakers and tell them to vote no on this harmful legislation.