Hundreds of Missouri prisoners serving mandatory sentences for largely nonviolent offenses could become eligible for parole under a new law enacted this week that Gov. Mike Parson touted as a criminal justice reform.
The bill exempts some nonviolent offenses from a state law requiring people to serve at least 40 percent, 50 percent or 80 percent of their prison terms, depending on their number of previous prison convictions. The law could make some prisoners immediately eligible for parole, probation or early release when it takes effect Aug. 28.
Parson, a former sheriff, said the bill would help bring “reform to Missouri’s criminal justice system.”
“I understand the challenges facing those working within the criminal justice system, and we have to do a better job,” said Parson, a Republican.
The new Missouri law reflects a national trend toward more lenient prison terms for some low-level criminals as governments shift toward alternative strategies that are focused more specifically on rehabilitation. It received strong support from both Republicans and Democrats as it passed Missouri’s GOP-led Legislature earlier this year.
Missouri’s prison population peaked at 33,243 in September 2017 but had fallen to 28,038 as of Monday, due largely to other recent changes to Missouri’s criminal sentencing laws, the Department of Corrections said.
The department estimates the new law could decrease Missouri’s prison population by 192 people this year and by 925 people by the 2023 fiscal year. That could save the state about $1 million in avoided prison costs this year and nearly $5.9 million by 2023.
The measure would keep in place mandatory minimum sentences for murder, assault, rape, child sex crimes and the most serious levels of arson, burglary and robbery, as well as various other crimes. It also would subject people convicted of top-tier drug trafficking offenses to mandatory minimum sentences.
The advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums said Missouri joins more than 30 other states that have revamped their mandatory sentencing laws.
“We are especially glad to see these reforms made retroactive, because getting a fair punishment shouldn’t depend on something as arbitrary as the day you went to court,” said Molly Gill, FAMM’s vice president of policy.
The legislation also addresses courts that charge people who are arrested for the cost holding them in jail. It prohibits payment of such jail debts from being made a condition of probation and bars people from being arrested and put back in jail for not paying previous jail costs.
The Missouri Supreme Court ruled in March that local courts can’t put people in jail for not paying previous jail debts.
The practice of charging and jailing people for their past jail debts gained public attention in Missouri through a series of articles written by St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work.
The legislation also drew support from the state chapter of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity.
“Our laws should help individuals get back up on their feet after tough times instead of creating more obstacles on their road to redemption,” said Jeremy Cady, the Missouri director for Americans for Prosperity.