Date: January 18th, 2024

To: Chairman Roberts and Members, House Crime Prevention & Public Safety Committee

From: Mallory Rusch, Executive Director at Empower Missouri

Re: HB 1659

As the largest and oldest anti-poverty non-profit in our state, Empower Missouri is committed to improving the quality of life for all Missouri residents through advocacy. 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 1659 is a comprehensive criminal justice bill that addresses public safety in Missouri on various fronts. Increasing public safety is a top priority for many across our state, and HB 1659 offers many innovative solutions that we fully support. I want to briefly comment in support on three sections of this bill as well as provide one flag for concern. 

Section 211.071

Missouri law allows for children as young as 12 years old who are suspected of having committed a crime that is categorized as a felony offense to be tried as an adult at the discretion of the court and has no age floor for children suspected of dangerous felonies. We fully support creating a floor for dangerous felonies and are supportive of raising the age for all felonies to 16 or 18, although 14, as laid out in this bill, is an important start to the process.

The general standard for being considered an adult in the United States is 18 years old.  When you turn eighteen, you can begin voting in federal, state, and local elections. You are able to legally enter into contracts and other written agreements. You can be conscripted into military service, if we were ever to reenact the draft. You can begin to make your own medical decisions. Before you are 18, an adult– a parent, other relative, or court-appointed guardian– has legal custody and decision-making authority over you. 

Given all of that, logic would dictate that children under the age of 18 who break the law should be handled by the juvenile justice system– a court and detention program designed specifically for minors with a strong focus on rehabilitation. These programs are designed to provide wrap-around support for children and families who are often undergoing very difficult circumstances; these interventions seek to ensure that minors don’t end up trapped in a lifetime of encounters with the criminal legal system. 

As a society, we have determined that children younger than 18 do not have the cognitive capacity to make their own decisions. This is why those under 18 are required to be under the legal supervision of an adult unless they have been specifically adjudicated to function as an adult by becoming an emancipated minor. There is a mountain of scientific evidence that says that human brains are not fully developed until the age of 25. Adolescents are more easily influenced by external factors than their adult counterparts, and their brains are still building the capacity for judgment, impulse control and long-term planning. 

If a child commits an offense classified as a felony by the state, we should assume that at least one of the following three things is true:

  • The child has been subjected to extraordinary circumstances that have resulted in a terrible tragedy.
  • The child has been the victim of abuse or neglect.
  • The child has been or should be diagnosed with a serious mental illness. 

In any of these situations, it is cruel and unusual to punish the child the same way that they would punish an adult. We must cherish and protect all of our children in Missouri.  This includes protecting children who are victims of terrible circumstances.

Sections 307.018 & 556.021

We strongly support the provision to cease the practice of issuing arrest warrants for individuals who fail to respond, pay the associated fines or appear in courts for traffic violations and other infractions. There are far better uses of time for our law enforcement officers and our courts, and we appreciate Representative Roberts’ innovative approach to this issue. Many individuals who fail to respond or are struggling to pay fines levied against them simply do not have the financial means to make the payments. We applaud the alternative methods proposed, including allowing judges to waive fines for indigent defendants or offering community service in lieu of payment. 

Sections 579.065 & 579.068

It is a well-documented fact that cocaine in both of its well-known forms – crack and powder –

are chemically the same. There is zero scientific or pharmacological basis for treating crack and powder cocaine any differently under the law. When Missouri’s disparate sentencing began in 1989, many lawmakers and members of the public believed that crack cocaine was more dangerous. Those beliefs were proven false, and through an effort to acknowledge this in Missouri’s legal code, the disparity was reduced (from 75-to-1 down to 18.75-to-1). The only significant difference in crack and powder cocaine is found in the economic status of

its typical users. Individuals who use crack need addiction recovery support, not harsher

prison sentences. Empower Missouri urges this committee to finish the job and eliminate the sentencing disparity fully under Missouri law in 2024. 

Section 217.690

Empower Missouri opposes the changes to this section of law for three key reasons. First, Supreme Court legal precedent counsels against the extreme sentencing of youth, given a number of factors that I will expound on briefly below. Second, current law simply affords these individuals sentenced as children the right to a hearing from the parole board. The parole board can simply deny parole to individuals who are still deemed a danger to society. Third, denying parole to children currently serving long sentences for second degree murder would cost the state approximately $4 million.

In a line of precedent beginning with Roper v. Simmons—a case originating here in Missouri—the United States Supreme Court has cautioned against the extreme sentencing of youth, noting the developmental, environmental, and social characteristics of youth, each of which is transient and counsels against sentencing them to die in prison. In those cases (Roper v. Simmons, Graham v. Florida, Miller v. Alabama, Montgomery v. Louisiana), the Court noted three significant ways in which youth are categorically different than adults:

  1. they have a “lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility” as compared to adults that “often result in impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions”; 
  2. they are “more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure”; and
  3.  “the character of a juvenile is not as well formed as that of an adult” and the “personality traits of juveniles are more transitory, less fixed.” 

The Supreme Court has held each mitigates youth’s culpability for committing even very serious crimes. The Court has also held that juvenile offenders “must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.” 

All of our arguments above in support of the changes to 211.071 apply equally to this provision. Individuals who committed crimes, even very serious crimes, as children should be given the opportunity to be evaluated for fitness to return to society. Please don’t remove the ability for the parole board to evaluate these cases on their individual merits to determine whether or not these individuals are worthy of a second chance. That decision will come at a high cost to these individuals, their families, and our taxpayers.

1 Response
  1. Chris Finch

    No warrant s for traffic violations if you don’t appear? All you are doing is telling people do what you want no accountability for not obeying the LAW!! Let’s all do what we want and if the people around us don’t like it to bad. Lost a grandson due to speed and careless driving and they just got a slap on the wrist. Enact no punishment and it will just get worse. Good Luck in life if they do this.

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