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Catholic conference backs criminal justice measures

State legislation addresses fees for jail stays, prescription drug monitoring

The Missouri Catholic Conference is supporting measures relating to criminal justice — on fees for jail stays, prescription drug monitoring and overpopulation of prisons.

House Bill 192 modifies provision relating to the payment of fines by offenders. The MCC says that these fees known, as “board bills,” and other court costs imposed on individuals convicted of minor offenses are unjust and punitive and fail to serve as a just means of correction.

Current law allows fines for each day’s imprisonment in county jails. The bill removes the imprisonment option for people who fail to pay fines and court costs. The practice “is rampant in the rural counties of Missouri,” the MCC stated. Currently, if a person isn’t able to pay the board bill, he or she is forced to come before the judge in a “show-cause” hearing to explain why he or she shouldn’t be put in jail. The person then can be assessed additional fines if unable to pay the bill or be put in jail if he or she fails to attend the hearing.

“This can go on for years, costing the defendant thousands of dollars,” according to the Catholic conference statement.

Tyler McClay, executive director and general counsel of the Catholic conference, said “it’s just fundamentally unjust to put someone in jail and then say, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re going to charge you for the time you were in prison. And then if you don’t pay the bill, we’re going to put you back in jail.’ It’s terrible.”

If a city is funding part of their budget this way, “it doesn’t seem right to do it on the backs of people who commit petty crimes,” McClay said. “If it’s for a minor offense, it’s just not good policy.”

Introduced by Rep. Bruce DeGroot (R-Chesterfield), the bill was referred to the Special Committee on Criminal Justice where a public hearing was completed Feb. 7. Supporters of the legislation remarked that the practice discriminates against people who are poor. No one spoke in opposition to the bill and the committee took no action on it.

Prescription drug monitoring

The House voted 103-53 Feb. 11 to approve a statewide prescription drug monitoring program. Rep. Holly Rehder (R-Sikeston), sponsor of House Bill 188 told the legislative body that the monitoring program would save lives by helping to stop addiction to opioid drugs.

The bill moves to the Senate for further consideration. Similar bills passed out of the House several times in the past but were held up in the Senate.

The House Insurance Policy Committee heard testimony on the bill, which would establish to program to track the quantities of controlled substances prescribed to patients, allowing medical professionals to identify early signs of addiction and prevent doctors from accidentally prescribing dangerous drug combinations.

Missouri is the only state without a statewide monitoring program. Sixty counties and the city of St. Louis have already launched their own programs, but those only cover about half of the state’s geographic area.

The Senate heard its own version of the bill, SB 155, sponsored by Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, but a motion to pass the bill out of committee failed. Opponents argue that the program would violate citizens’ rights by collecting personal data and putting it into a government database that, they say, could then be jeopardized by hacking or other breaches. The Missouri Catholic Conference testified in support of the House and Senate bills.

Other bills

This year, a Committee on Criminal Justice was appointed by the Speaker of the House to address bills that could impact the overpopulation of prisons. House Bill 113 sponsored by Cody Smith (R-Carthage), would give judges the discretion to deviate from mandatory minimum sentencing if certain requirements were met. Supporters stated that this bill could help prevent young offenders from going to prison.

The committee passed the bill, and it was referred to the Rules-Administrative Oversight Committee.

Another bill heard by the committee was House Bill 352 sponsored by Rep. Tom Hannegan (R-St. Charles). This bill would grant a parole hearing to a “targeted” group of offenders over age 65 who were sentenced to life plus 50 years, as this law is no longer in effect in Missouri. Approximately 80-100 offenders could benefit from the legislation which would call for a parole hearing upon serving 30 years of a sentence.

“The idea would be to give those folks a chance at parole because most of them have served a long time and they’re older and they’re not a threat to society,” McClay said.

The bill was passed by the committee and referred to the Rules-Administrative Oversight Committee.

The MCC testified in support of both bills.

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