Vigilance Needed as Gov. Parson Signs Mass Incarceration Bill, Signals Upcoming Special Session on Criminal Justice

We were extremely disappointed when Gov. Parson announced on July 6 that he would be signing Senate Substitute for Senate Bill 600 (SB 600), legislation that enacts mandatory minimums and stacking of sentences and creates new classes of crimes.  We said so in a statewide press release, in a guest column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and in interviews with the media.

We are very thankful for your vigorous response to our call to action. Data from our website and those of other organizations that oppose SB 600 show that thousands of Missourians asked Gov. Parson for a veto. Knowing him as I do (we served in the Missouri House of Representatives together for several years), I believe the deciding factor was his loyalty to certain law enforcement organizations. As a retired sheriff, I believe Gov. Parson simply could not say no to some in law enforcement who asked him to sign the bill.

Certainly there were other voices in law enforcement, the broader criminal justice movement, and the Governor’s own Caucus who saw the issue differently. Both conservative and progressive organizations asked for a veto in this joint statement. Thirteen majority party members voted no on SB 600, and that list includes some of the most thoughtful and public-service oriented members of the majority.

One of our grave concerns about the bill is its future impact on our state budget. “Hindsight is 20/20” is a humorous motto, but the writing is clearly spelled out in the fiscal note for this bill. It is projected to increase our prison population by more than 2500 in the next two decades.

Missouri is already structured to fail as a state because of our outdated, unfair, and inadequate revenue system, as we pointed out following the recent audit of the state constitution’s “Hancock Amendment.” In 2017, it was projected that building a new men’s prison and a new women’s prison would cost $485 million, plus $27 million annually to operate each. Imagine the further reductions to K-12 and higher education, mental health, children’s services, and other essential programs and services that may be caused by Missouri’s return to the failed policy of mass incarceration.

Of equal concern is the racial injustice of this bill. The past three decades make it clear that a disproportionate number of those newly incarcerated by SB 600 will be Black Missourians. Presently, African Americans constitute 12% of state residents, but 34% of people in Missouri prisons according to an incarceration trends summary from the Vera Institute of Justice. SB 600 is likely to make these statistics even worse.

Why is this so? First, SB 600 gives more power to prosecutors while taking it away from defendants. Mandatory minimums increase the pressure to accept a plea bargain.

Secondly, many will have inadequate defense in their trials. The fiscal note for the bill spells this out quite clearly, saying the public defender system “cannot assume that existing staff will provide effective representation for any new cases arising where indigent persons are charged” and “is currently providing legal representation in caseloads in excess of recognized standards.” Let us not forget that African Americans are disproportionately represented among poverty statistics, given the continuing challenges that communities of color face in education and employment due to structural racism.

This week we have felt grief and anger about SB 600. It is important to express these and to practice good self-care. At the same time, we are already taking steps to be ready for the Extraordinary Session later this year that Gov. Parson has said that he will call on criminal justice. We are among voices asking that the call include policing reform.

Make no mistake: this is a time of grave danger. We have seen how “tough on crime” language gets manipulated in election years. Fortunately this is changing, and 91 percent of U.S. voters support criminal justice reform, with two of three supporting reduced imprisonment. Missouri often lags behind national trends, sadly. Together we can help Missouri catch up with the many states that are improving public safety while spending less on corrections.  Please watch for our updates and swiftly answer our calls to action, including sending Gov. Parson a message about your disapproval of his action on SB 600 and your hopes for the Special Session at this link.

In solidarity,

Jeanette Mott Oxford
Director of Policy & Organizing

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