Advocates of corrections reform hail new legislation

Catholic conference backed bill ending ‘debtor’s prison,’ many minimum sentences

The Missouri General Assembly passed a corrections reform that ends the practice of imprisoning people who can’t afford to pay the costs associated with a previous stay in jail. The bill also eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes. The Missouri Catholic Conference supported House Bill 192, which was sponsored by Rep. Bruce DeGroot, R-Chesterfield, and awaits approval by Gov. Mike Parson.

Deacon Andy Daus of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque Parish in Oakville, president of the Criminal Justice Ministry, said “we’ve gone through this ‘three strikes and you’re out’ mindset and there’s so many people locked up for nonviolent crimes that they’re being overconfined. Granted there are some really dangerous people who are locked up, and they ought to be locked up. But for those who aren’t, there ought to be some sanity brought to it.”

The practice of charging “board bills” is prevalent in rural counties, as illustrated in a series of columns in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and reporting by the Salem News. The legislation will do away with “show-cause” hearings, during which defendants must report to a judge every month to give updates on efforts to pay down jail debt. If the person does not show up to the hearing, a warrant could be issued for their arrest.

The bill’s sponsors and Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt were among those who said this amounted to putting people in a “debtor’s prison.”

The legislation would allow counties to seek to collect jail bills through civil means, with no threat of jail time.

DeGroot said current law is putting Missourians who’ve committed minor crimes and who can’t afford to pay fines and boarding costs back in jail, where they only incur more boarding costs. In March, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous decision that courts cannot threaten defendants with additional jail time if a defendant fails to pay bills associated with a prior jail stay. HB 192 will codify the prohibition into law.

“As a practicing Catholic, I firmly believe how we treat the least of our people is a direct reflection on us as a society,” DeGroot said.

Provisions in the bill also allow judges to waive mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for nonviolent offenders who meet certain criteria.

Except for named offenses listed in the act, most involving violence or sexual assault, judges would have the discretion to impose sentences whereby offenders would be eligible for parole, conditional release, or early release, rather than a statutorily imposed jail sentence. Missouri’s current minimum sentencing requirements increase the prison population and costs to the state, and can have a negative effect on recidivism, according to supporters of the bill, including the Missouri Catholic Conference.

In 2017, 48 percent of the Missouri prison population was serving time for a nonviolent offense, including drug offenses, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections.

Rita Linhardt, who works on corrections legislation for the Missouri Catholic Conference, said: “It supports a restorative justice approach to crime that ensures the punishment fits the crime. Evidence suggests that it is the certainty of being caught, not the severity of the punishment, that deters future crime.”

Deacon Daus said he hopes trends continue: “I’m seeing good things happening, light at the end of the tunnel.”

DeGroot said he worked closely with Mark Ellebracht, D- Liberty, on the legislation and also credited Tony Messenger of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for articles on the issue, for which Messenger was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in April.

Ellebracht, in a news release from the Missouri House, said the legislation is proof that opposing parties can come together to do good things.

Some information for this article was provided by the Missouri Catholic Conference.

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