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Is there still hope for criminal justice reform this session?


JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — With only one week left in the legislative session, it’s pretty certain the massive criminal justice reform omnibus bill isn’t making it out of the House. But still, lawmakers contend there’s hope to pass at least a few measures before the end of the week.

Championed by Republican Rep. Shamed Dogan, HCB 2 mirrored the federal First Step Act signed into law by President Donald Trump last year. It included a bevy of reforms, such as free feminine hygiene products for incarcerated women, sentencing reforms for mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenders, parole for certain geriatric inmates, the ability for felons to work in convenience and grocery stores, and civil asset forfeiture reform.

The bill was perfected by the House last month but was ultimately dropped from the calendar.

“Like a lot of things in the process, you try and figure out what the best package is, and we thought we had a pretty solid package pass through [two House] committees unanimously, but once it hit the floor, we ran into some problems,” Dogan told The Missouri Times.

Still, lawmakers have pointed to the following criminal justice reform bills — some of which were part of Dogan’s omnibus bill — as having potential to pass yet this week:

  • HB 113 from Rep. Cody Smith: eliminates mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent crimes
  • HB 192 from Rep. Bruce DeGroot: strips ability to imprison someone only for an inability to pay board bills
  • SB 1 from Sen. Kiki Curls: adds certain nonviolent crimes to list for possible expungement

“If we end up this session with legislation that ends up increasing our prison population, rather than decreasing it, we will have failed entirely on criminal justice reform,” Dogan said.

Sen. Ed Emery, who has worked on mandatory minimum sentencing legislation in the Senate, specifically pointed to the two House bills as having hope of making it through the legislature.

“I think it will be great if we can get either one of those bills passed. I feel like that’s a pretty big step,” Emery, a Republican, told The Missouri Times.

As for Smith’s mandatory minimums bill, the House Republican pointed to successes in other states with similar approaches. He said other factors, such as parole or treatment courses combined with prison time, could “lead to better outcomes” and a lower recidivism rate.

“Your incarceration rate goes down, which leads to better outcomes, and when you have fewer people in prison, you spend less taxpayer dollars,” Smith said.

“If we end up this session with legislation that ends up increasing our prison population, rather than decreasing it, we will have failed entirely on criminal justice reform.”

When it comes to the final week of the session, Smith said: “The question becomes how much can we get done and how much can we do.”

“It will be interesting to see after this last week what direction we take: if we end up more on the positive ledger of real reforms, or if we end up doing more political posturing and sounding tough on crime — even nonviolent crime,” Dogan added.

As for HCB 2, Dogan said it struggled on the House floor because some lawmakers had “heartburn” over a few provisions, including those related to civil asset forfeiture and parole for certain elderly inmates. But he’s also frustrated with actions — or lack thereof — in the Senate.

“I’m also concerned about the fact that none of these bills had counterparts that have passed the Senate yet,” he added. “A lot of what the Senate has passed on criminal justice reform are things that will, unfortunately, take us steps backward.”

Particularly, Dogan takes umbrage with Sen. David Sater’s SB 6, legislation that largely deals with controlled substances. He pointed to a provision that would designate a Class B felony for anyone who sold drugs with traceable amounts of heroin.

“It’s already illegal to deal heroin. It’s already illegal to possess heroin. And the idea that you’re going to treat people who possess or sell trace amounts of heroin … the same way you would a drug kingpin, that’s absolutely insane,” he said, promising to “fight tooth and nail” to block that provision.

SB 6 sits on the House calendar for third reading.