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Missouri voters back criminal justice reforms

As the GOP-led Missouri Legislature considers reforms, Justice Action Network released a statewide poll showing a majority of voters from both parties believe the state’s criminal justice system needs improvement.  

The poll, conducted in January among likely Missouri voters, found broad public support for keeping people out of jail while they await trial for low-level offenses and for removing barriers for people with criminal history through measures such as automatic record expungement so law-abiding citizens can begin to earn a living. 

Those polled also indicated support for key reform proposals currently pending in the legislature, including limiting misdemeanor probation sentences lengths (HB 2248 sponsored by Rep. Ron Hicks); establishing nursery programs in state prisons (HB 1897 sponsored by Rep. DeGroot and SB 834 sponsored by Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer); and limiting bench warrants issued for traffic violations (HB 1702 sponsored by Rep. Lane Roberts).  

“We are often presented with a false choice between reform and public safety, but these proven reforms show you can enhance public safety, while also targeting justice system resources where they need to go,” Katie Sinquefield, a criminal justice reform advocate, said. “Voters want the legislature to keep people out of jail for low-level offenses, break down barriers to reentry, and make it easier for people who have made mistakes to turn their lives around and contribute to their communities once again.”

“The clear message from Missouri voters is that lawmakers should double-down on their efforts to improve the state’s criminal justice system,” said Noah Bein, state policy manager for the Justice Action Network. “This message transcends party affiliation and urban/rural divides: voters overwhelmingly support evidence-backed laws that divert people from lockup, increase treatment options, and remove barriers to re-entering the workforce for citizens who have done their time.” 

The poll found 72 percent of voters in Missouri, including two-thirds of Republicans and nearly three-quarters of victim households, supported allowing Missouri residents with less serious criminal records who have remained crime-free for a period of time to seal or expunge their records.

In addition, most Missouri voters, including the vast majority of Republicans and victim households, support keeping people charged with “minor crimes like trespassing or intoxication” (79 percent) or misdemeanors (72 percent) in the community while awaiting trial rather than holding them in jail.

Individuals supported several proposals currenting under consideration by the legislature. 

For example, Hicks’ bill would limit the length of probation for low-level offenses. The poll found 64 percent of voters in Missouri, including majorities from both political parties, and 84 percent of law enforcement households, support capping probation sentences for misdemeanors and ordinance violations at 18 months.

In addition, Roberts is sponsoring legislation that would eliminate the practice of issuing bench warrants for failure to appear in court for traffic violations and failure to pay traffic fines. This issue is supported by 58 percent of voters surveyed and is particularly salient for those in rural areas.

The poll was conducted by landline and cell phone from Jan. 15-18. It had a margin of error of +/- 4.4 percent.