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General Assembly sends criminal justice reform measure to governor

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The Missouri House truly agreed and finally passed legislation aimed at modifying mandatory minimum sentences and protecting Missourians from being jailed simply for being unable to pay board bills.

Championed by Rep. Bruce DeGroot, HB 192 strips the punishment of more prison time for someone who cannot afford the initial fines — often creating an unbreakable cycle.

DeGroot, a Republican, has pointed to a woman who was jailed for stealing an $8 tube of mascara. She racked up several thousand dollars in so-called “board bills,” and when she was unable to pay what she owed, she was required to show up to a court date once a month. When she missed a date, she was ordered to go back to prison, thus adding to her bill.

“She will never get out of the system,” DeGroot has said

“This is a major step forward to reforming our system of criminal justice,” DeGroot told The Missouri Times after the 138-11 vote.

From the floor, DeGroot said, he wanted to focus on the “injustice” of the current system.

 “We had created a system where they could never leave,” he said. “We only want people in jail who we are truly afraid of.”

The Senate had attached additional language to the bill pertaining to mandatory minimum sentencing. That language, stemming from one of Republican Rep. Cody Smith’s bill, eliminates mandatory minimum sentencing for certain nonviolent crimes.

Ahead of the vote, Smith pushed back against arguments from opponents, including Rep. Shane Roden, who contended the legislation could somehow increase the population in already crowded county prisons. He noted the budget appropriated several million dollars for an electronic monitoring program, which could keep certain offenders out of jail for a time.

“I hope that makes everybody feel a little better about the situation,” Smith said.

The bill’s fiscal note estimates a savings of nearly $6 million.

“A … benefit: when you have less people in prison, you spend less money as a state,” Smith previously told The Missouri Times. “Your incarceration rate goes down which leads to better outcomes, and when you have fewer people in prison, you spend less taxpayer dollars.”

“HB 192 puts Missouri one step closer to restructuring our criminal justice system,” ACLU of Missouri Legislative and Policy Director Sara Baker said in a statement. “This legislation supports the reform of a system that unfairly targets marginalized communities.”

Ahead of the final week of the legislative session, criminal justice reform advocates pointed to only a handful of bills that had hope of making it out of the General Assembly. Both DeGroot’s HB 192 and Smith’s mandatory minimum bill were included in that list.

DeGroot said he’s already spoken to attorneys on either side of the aisle about future reforms, including with civil asset forfeiture, he can push through the legislature next year.

Is there still hope for criminal justice reform this session?