The 2023 legislative session will end today at 6PM, so there’s only a few hours remaining for the legislature to pass any final bills before the clock runs out. There will be several opportunities over the next week to debrief the session with Empower Missouri. On Monday, look for a special email with our end-of-session podcast, where our team will debrief the highs and lows of the session and then discuss what comes next. And next Friday, you can join me, our policy staff, and members of our lobbying team for our final Friday Forum of the spring where we’ll be talking through all of the outcomes and previewing our policy priorities for 2024. But, in the meantime, here’s a quick glimpse at some of our most exciting victories and toughest disappointments– along with what we’ll be watching for today!
Last Friday, May 5th, the legislature passed SB 106. The underlying bill creates new restrictions for the types of examinations that medical professionals can perform on unconscious or anesthetized patients, but two of our key policy priorities were added to this bill during the amendment process. First, the bill will create a transitional benefits program in Missouri. This program will provide critical support for families who are working their way out of poverty, but would be financially devastated by the sudden loss of all benefits when they hit the income caps for those programs. Missouri’s new transitional benefit program will provide a necessary stop-gap for families receiving SNAP, TANF, and childcare assistance who are starting to earn higher wages but can’t yet afford to lose all of their benefits. This legislation also directs the Missouri Department of Social Services to significantly streamline and shorten the application for benefits programs in Missouri, making it easier for Missouri families to access federal safety net programs.
(ICYMI: All federal safety net programs have income caps for participation. Once an individual reaches that income limit, they are cut off from benefits. Many times this benefit ends when someone makes just $ .10 a more an hour. This drop off, often referred to as the benefits cliff, can disincentivize someone from taking a pay increase or a promotion to a better job.)
Second, SB 106 contained the much-debated postpartum Medicaid expansion language that will allow women to stay on Medicaid for a full year after giving birth. (There is a higher income threshold for pregnant women to access Medicaid, so many women qualify for the program while pregnant, but they currently lose that coverage 60 days after giving birth.) Over 40 percent of women who give birth in Missouri do so while on Medicaid. Missouri has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the country, and 80 percent of pregnancy-related deaths occur postpartum. This is a life-saving piece of legislation for thousands of low-income mothers in our state.
Our second major set of wins comes from our Community Justice Coalition. On Thursday, May 11th, the legislature passed SB 189, an omnibus bill with over 100 pages of updated provisions dealing with our criminal legal system in Missouri. While there were a couple of negative provisions (see next section), the bill was overwhelmingly positive. Here are some of the features that we’re most excited by:
- Curbing Failure to Appear Arrests: Currently in Missouri, a person can end up in jail for an unpaid traffic ticket or a missed court appearance for a minor infraction. SB 189 will ban the use of arrest warrants for any infractions; instead, courts will issue a notice. In the case of unpaid traffic tickets, those will be routed to the DMV for collection at the time of registration or license renewal. This will prevent thousands of Missourians from winding up in jail for an inability to pay tickets.
- Addressing Wrongful Convictions: There has been a lot of discussion in Missouri regarding wrongful convictions surrounding two high-profile cases over the last few years: Lamar Johnson and Kevin Strickland. There are three provisions in SB 189 dealing with this issue:
- Currently in Missouri, only people found to be wrongfully convicted through DNA evidence are eligible to receive restitution. SB 189 will make it so anyone found to be wrongfully convicted is eligible for restitution, and also increases the amount of restitution received from $100 per day spent incarcerated to $179.
- SB 189 changes what court and prosecutor have the jurisdiction to make a motion to vacate criminal charges from where a person was convicted to where the charges were filed. This is important to ensure that wrongful convictions in high profile cases where the trial location was changed are able to be overturned by the original county.
- SB 189 also provides that the Missouri office of prosecution services may establish a conviction review unit in order to investigate claims of actual innocence of any defendant, including those who plead guilty. It also stipulates that the application process for review cannot include excessive fees, and that these fees be waived in cases of indigency.
- Jail Time Credit: SB 189 ensures that all Missourians receive “time served credit” for any time spent incarcerated after an offense occurred and before the commencement of their sentence when convicted in the form of time deducted from their prison sentence.
- Protecting Youth in the Justice System:
- SB 189 would raise the minimum age at which a child can be certified as an adult from 12 to 14 for many offenses. For a list of more serious offenses, a new minimum age was set at 12, whereas before any child could be charged with a crime such as murder. (Empower Missouri believes that we still have significant work to do in raising these minimum ages, but this is a good first step.)
- In addition, any correctional treatment programs provided to individuals aged 18 and under in DOC custody (children that have been charged as adults) must include an educational component and the opportunity for a high school equivalency test.
- Blair’s Law: After fighting for nearly a decade, Blair Shanahan Lane’s family can rest easy tonight. The legislature finally passed this law banning the negligent discharge of firearms within the limits of any municipality, and stipulates that in doing so a person commits the offense of unlawful discharge of a firearm. (Blair was an 11-year-old killed by this type of gunfire in Kansas City in 2011.)
- Drug Policy Changes:
- Missouri currently has an 18.75 to 1 sentencing disparity for cocaine base (crack) compared to powder cocaine. SB 189 removes this language and treats these two forms of the same substance the same, a long overdue change to a disparity based on systemic racism.
- In addition, the bill removes limitations on manufacturing, possessing, selling, delivering, or using any form of testing to determine the presence of fentanyl or closely related chemicals. This is an important harm reduction tool that can greatly reduce drug users’ exposure to fentanyl.
- Petition-Based Expungement Changes: SB 189 would create several changes to the petition based expungement process, including the elimination of the $250 filing fee. It also creates a path for expungement for additional eligible offenses if they were committed in an “extended course of criminal conduct,” defined as a period of addiction or as youthful indiscretions between ages 16 and 25. This essentially means that all expungement eligible offenses from that period of a person’s life could be sealed, regardless of the number. We applaud these changes and think that they will be very meaningful for a small number of Missourians, but we are eager to continue working with the legislature to pass Clean Slate next year so that all Missourians who have earned a second chance are afforded one.
In addition to these positive changes to the law, we are celebrating a large number of bills that have not passed this session. However, because we don’t believe in tempting fate, we’ll update this article on Monday with the full list!
SB 189 also contained two provisions that Empower has been fighting off for the last several years. The first provision expands the definition of a “persistent offender,” a classification which includes enhanced sentencing provisions, to include anyone convicted of a “dangerous felony” (a set list of felony offenses defined by statute), even if it is their first offense. This continues to baffle us, since this isn’t what the word “persistent” means. We will monitor implementation of this provision closely in the years ahead. Second, this bill will ban those convicted of second degree murder for a crime committed under the age of 18 from being eligible for a parole hearing after serving 15 years of their sentence. This parole eligibility for individuals convicted as juveniles was just put into law two years ago, with a carveout for those convicted of first-degree murder. This provision now also bars those convicted of second-degree murder. While this will only impact a very small number of individuals, we know that it is devastating to them and their families, and we will work to win that eligibility back in future sessions.
SB 222 is currently in conference, and we expect to see it pass tomorrow. It contains a provision restricting the ability of localities to authorize eviction moratoriums. Empower testified against this bill, and while it doesn’t pose an immediate threat to renters, it could be devastating in the case of another public health emergency or natural disaster. We will work in future sessions to amend this provision to allow localities to impose moratoriums if the Governor has declared a state of emergency.
Of course, there were also a number of bills that we hoped to see pass this session that got left behind. The Restaurant Meals Program and expanding eligibility for free- and reduced-price school meals will need another attempt next year. We will continue working to educate legislators about the importance of Clean Slate and land banks. We will continue to join our many partners in working to update and expand the Circuit Breaker Tax Credit to help keep seniors and those with disabilities in their homes, and to end the luxury tax on diapers and period products (really, can’t we all get behind that one??). There were also many other important criminal justice provisions proposed this session, and we’ll keep working with our coalition to build a strong strategy for these bills ahead of next session.
What We’re Watching Today
Two words: Initiative Petitions. Along with hundreds of other advocates and organizations around the state, we’ll be holding our breath until 6:00PM to see if HJR 43 is passed out of the Senate. As you likely know, HJR 43 would put a dangerous and misleading proposal on the ballot to make it significantly harder for Missourians to pass legislation through the initiative petition process, something that is enshrined in our state’s constitution and has been the mechanism for passing many important recent reforms, such as raising the minimum wage, legalizing marijuana, and expanding Medicaid. If passed, this proposal will go to Missouri voters in 2024.
As noted above, we’ll be going into more detail and answering questions at our May Friday Forum: Legislative Wrap Up on May 19th, and you can still register to join us! And, watch for a special edition of Under the Dome, our weekly podcast, coming on Monday.