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Criminal Justice Reforms Advance In Missouri House

Shamed Dogan May 2016
File photo | Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Rep. Shamed Dogan, shown here in May 2016, says although there's been a 'sea change' in his party around criminal justice issues, his so-called Missouri First Step Act has a tough road to passage.

A Missouri House committee has approved major changes to the state’s criminal justice system, including giving judges more leeway in nonviolent crime sentencing.

The action Thursday by the House Special Committee on Criminal Justice is just the first step in what its chairman, Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, acknowledges could be a long fight.

“We have to have a fight with some of our friends and colleagues who are good conservatives and good Republicans just to convince them that this is morally the right thing to do and that this is fiscally sound and fiscally conservative,” Dogan said.

The legislation, which Dogan is calling the Missouri First Step Act after the federal reforms signed by the Trump administration, also includes the following provisions:

  • Individuals on probation with a private company would not have to submit to drug and alcohol testing unless ordered by a judge, or if they had been convicted of a crime related to drug or alcohol.
  • Defendants could not be sent to jail for failing to pay fines or fees, although local governments could use the collection process. Warrants could not be issued solely because someone has unpaid fines.
  • Police officers would have to note whether a driver they have stopped lives in the jurisdiction where the stop occurred.
  • Police departments would be required to adopt policies designed to eliminate bias in traffic stops.
  • Inmates in the state’s prisons and jails would have to be provided free menstrual products.
  • County jails would have to followcertain restrictions if they choose to shackle pregnant inmates. It does not ban the shackling of inmates in labor. The limits are already in place in state prisons.

The Missouri Police Chiefs Association expressed some concern with the provisions on traffic-stop data. The group worries that because the state’s population is used as the baseline to determine if a department is discriminating against black drivers, departments that have a lot of traffic from other states may seem as though they have an issue with biased policing when they do not.
“We have agencies, as an example, Joplin, which sits on the border and has a residential population of about 50,000 but a daily population of about 240,000,” said Republican Rep. Lane Roberts, the former police chief in Joplin. “It draws from Oklahoma, it draws from Kansas, it draws from Arkansas. You have the same situation when you look at Hannibal or St. Louis. Those cities are affected by things other than the state population.”

The committee also voted Thursday to eliminate a provision of state law that allowed a judge to sentence a defendant to death if a jury could not unanimously agree to that sentence. If that happens, those defendants would be automatically sentenced to life without parole.

Both bills await action in the full state House.

Budget, impeachment changes advance

  • The House approved budgets for the 2020 fiscal year. They include more money for school transportation and for the school-funding formula, but do not include the $350 million that Gov. Mike Parson wanted to borrow for roads and bridges. Instead, state Rep. Cody Smith, R-Carthage, recommended taking $100 million from the general fund. Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, said his caucus is “looking at somewhere between what the House has presented and potentially something less than that, to maybe a shorter-term bonding, possibly.”
  • The Senate has approved changes to Missouri’s impeachment process. It would give Senators the authority to try all impeachments, and limit the grounds for impeachment to conduct in office only. This is the first time a legislative chamber has approved these changes, which have been proposed almost every year since 2010.

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Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.