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Next Steps: Criminal justice reform


As elected officials vacate Jefferson City and return to their families and jobs, The Missouri Times is bringing you updates on big initiatives that didn’t quite make it through before May 17. The “Next Steps” series will showcase progress made on certain legislative issues and a look ahead to what could come.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — With the 2019 legislative session over, activists and lawmakers alike are already gearing up to fight for more criminal justice reform measures next year.

During the interim, the Special Committee on Criminal Justice hopes to hold public hearings in Kansas City and St. Louis on issues such as racial profiling and civil asset forfeiture, according to Rep. Shamed Dogan, the committee chairman. This comes in the wake of a report from Missouri’s attorney general showcasing an increase in racial disparity among drivers stopped by police in the state.

Dogan said all stakeholders — community leaders, local elected officials, law enforcement officers, and prosecutors — would be invited to attend these hearings.

“We want to find common ground on legislative reform on these issues, and we want to get their constructive criticisms about the proposals we’ve already introduced and get their buy-in,” Dogan told The Missouri Times. “I think you have to have buy-in from law enforcement on both of these issues to do anything meaningful.”

And when lawmakers return to Jefferson City next year, Rep. Steve Roberts, the Democratic chairman of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus, already has plans to refile a slew of legislation aimed at helping incarcerated people reacclimate back into society and avoid recidivism.

From expanding access to basic hygiene care in all prisons to tackling drug penalties, read on for a look at what’s important to those pushing for more criminal justice reform in Missouri.

Shackling pregnant inmates

Shackling pregnant inmates who are in their third-trimester and in the immediate aftermath of delivery is already banned in state prisons — thanks to legislation championed by Missouri Republican Party Executive Director Jean Evans when she served in the House — but lawmakers hope to expand that ban to local prisons.

“It’s really disappointing and concerning that we haven’t been able to get an agreement from local jails to stop this abhorrent practice when it’s been outlawed at the state level and at the federal level,” Dogan said.

Prohibition of restraints used on inmates during pregnancy and postpartum recovery was included in the federal First Step Act, the large criminal justice reform bill President Donald Trump signed into law in 2018.

Feminine hygiene products in local prisons

Expanding access to feminine hygiene products in all of Missouri’s prisons — including local jails — remains a top priority for criminal justice reform leaders.

At the state level, women have had access to free pads — albeit, the quality hasn’t been sufficient, according to a recent report from the nonprofit Missouri Appleseed. In fact, as the pads were often not absorbent or large enough, women were relegated to make their own tampons, an often unsanitary move.

Lawmakers earmarked additional money in the budget to help state prisons provide more quality products for prisoners, and Liza Grote Weiss, the executive director of Missouri Appleseed, said it will be important to keep an eye on if access to these products does, in fact, improve.

“Hopefully the quality of the pads will be improved, and [female inmates] receive industry-quality tampons,” Weiss told The Missouri Times.

Dogan also said he hopes the legislature will push to add access to free, quality products into statute and enforce the same access in local prisons as well.

Medicaid suspension

Changes to the Medicaid status for incarcerated individuals are just waiting for the governor’s signature — but still, the rollout could be dicey, and criminal justice reform leaders plan to keep a close eye on it.

A provision included in SB 514 — which was given to the governor late last month — suspends MO HealthNet benefits for Missourians who are jailed or placed in a correctional facility as opposed to automatically canceling or terminating those benefits. An individual will have the suspension lifted once he or she is released from incarceration.

“Between now and next session, something to watch will be how this policy is implemented,” Weiss said, pointing specifically to how city and county jails will communicate with the Department of Social Services.

Weiss pointed out people could be stripped of Medicaid benefits even without a conviction.

“Recidivism increases, administrative costs for the state increases, there’s no continuity of care,” she said. “It doesn’t serve anybody well.”

Enhancing training programs for inmates

Expanding training and educational programs for inmates is a priority for Roberts in the interim. He praised Ranken Technical College in St. Louis and Department of Corrections Director Anne Precythe for teaming up on programs at a local jail.

These types of programs “give tools to people so they can be successful” and have a lower chance of reoffending, Roberts said.

Ending expansion of drug penalties

Roberts plans to refile legislation aimed at tackling sentencing guidelines for certain nonviolent offenders.

“Our state is going in a different direction as far as how we want to prosecute drug cases,” Roberts said. Instead of enhancing penalties for a Missourian who has an addiction problem — and isn’t facilitating in large-scale trafficking of drugs — the state should be “focusing on getting people the treatment they need.”