In 2019, the Missouri legislature enacted common-sense criminal justice reform, sponsored by Rep. Cody Smith. Chairman Smith’s legislation was simple: it exempted certain nonviolent offenses from mandatory minimum prison terms, allowing more discretion to consider the individual facts of a case when deciding how long nonviolent offenders should go to prison. Yet now, the legislature is on the brink of undoing this smart, successful law—with almost no debate whatsoever. Missourians deserve better.
House Bill 301, the vehicle for this fly-by-night repeal, passed unanimously out of Senate Judiciary just a few weeks ago. HB 301 not only undoes Rep. Smith’s reforms, it also expands mandatory minimum prison terms to “all classes of felonies” for those with prior incarceration.1 This includes a huge number of low-level, nonviolent offenses—minor charges like “off-track wagering.” It also includes ethics violations by an elected official for a second offense. Surely, when convicted for an ethics violation, legislators would like consideration of the individual circumstances of their situation when determining a punishment proportionate to their crime.
Chairman Smith’s legislation was evidence-based and championed by Republicans at the time. It protects public safety by reducing recidivism among those who can be rehabilitated and reserves costly prison space for people who have committed violent crimes and may need longer periods of incapacitation and rehabilitation inside.
We know from research that it is the certainty that someone will be caught that deters crime more much than the severity of the punishment on the back end of the process.
Back in 2019, some skeptics said the law would result in more lenient prison terms. But that never happened. In fact, following Smith’s evidence-based reform, the average amount of time offenders spent in prison rose to 55 months in FY 2022 from 42.8 months in FY 2018.2
Moreover, Rep. Smith’s reform is exactly the kind of change that Missouri voters wanted then and continue to want today. In a poll conducted last year by the Justice Action Network, large majorities of voters from both parties and those from law enforcement or victim households said Missouri’s justice system needed “major improvements.”3 Those same voters supported a wide range of evidence-based responses to crime oriented around diversion, treatment, and rehabilitation for people convicted of lower-level offenses—not the harsher punishments that mandatory minimums exemplify and that we know do not work to reduce recidivism.
What’s worse, though the version that previously passed the House contained a few insufficient guardrails, the Senate Judiciary committee stripped out even those meager provisions, reverting back to the most punitive version of the bill.
HB 301 contains several controversial measures on gun possession and prosecutorial control that have drawn significant attention and debate. Yet for all the hours of hearings in the House and Senate judiciary committees, almost no time at all was dedicated to discussing this dramatic undoing of a recent policy success story.
At the very least, such a significant reversal deserves proper debate. The legislature must stop this effort to forgo the legislative process. It must not undo such important legislation championed by Republican leaders without a thorough accounting of the policy in place now and the real ways a rollback would impact public safety and tax dollar investment.
Former Deputy Chairman of the Republican National Committee and Former Executive Director of the Missouri Republican Party