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Proponents of restitution reform hope governor’s veto doesn’t set precedent

Lamar Johnson waves to the media on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, after being released from custody at the Carnahan Courthouse — Johnson does not qualify for restitution under state law. Legislation aimed at reforming restitution in Missouri was vetoed by Gov. Mike Parson.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Lamar Johnson waves to the media on Feb. 14 after being released from custody at the Carnahan Courthouse — a part of Missouri’s 22nd Judicial Circuit — in downtown St. Louis. Johnson was released after being convicted and jailed for nearly 30 years for a murder he did not commit.

When Gov. Mike Parson announced last week he had acted on all legislation passed by Missouri lawmakers this session, only one bill received a veto.

That bill was an omnibus bill filled with multiple provisions related to criminal law, many of which had broad bipartisan support.

Parson specifically cited two provisions within the bill as reasons why he vetoed it. One of those provisions expanded who would be able to receive restitution from the state if they were exonerated after being convicted of a crime.

Currently, those who are convicted of a felony but later exonerated through DNA evidence are eligible for restitution from the state.

The vetoed legislation expanded that to also include those determined to be innocent through other evidentiary methods. It also increased how much restitution they received per day to $179 as opposed to $100.

Parson said in a statement he did not “believe every taxpayer across the state should be responsible for prosecutorial errors made at the local level.”

But Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City, said that legislation was a logical extension of what was already in state law.

“We want to just make sure that everyone is eligible under the current law to be able to receive restitution if they were wrongfully imprisoned. And this is just what it simply comes down to,” Williams said.

Gwen Smith, criminal justice policy manager with justice advocacy group Empower Missouri, said that it is fair for taxpayer dollars to go toward restitution efforts and that the only way to uncover more cases of wrongful conviction is if courts are willing to reopen them.

“I would certainly, as a taxpayer in Missouri, rather have the court spend time reopening those cases and examining those than have more and more people continue to remain in our prisons for crimes that they did not commit,” Smith said.

Smith said the increase in restitution would have put Missouri more in step with federal standards.

“Federal restitution standards are about $50,000 annually. I think the $179 a year would have put us at doing $65,000 annually in restitution costs,” Smith said.

Williams, who worked on the legislation, said it was disappointing that Parson vetoed it, especially since it had bipartisan support and made it through both chambers this session.

“I just hope it doesn't set precedent for those types of bills being vetoed in the future,” Williams said.

Missouri’s restitution laws have gained attention after the exonerations of Kevin Strickland and Lamar Johnson.

A jury convicted Strickland in 1979 of killing three people in Kansas City. Similarly, Lamar Johnson spent nearly three decades in prison for first-degree murder.

Strickland’s conviction was overturned in 2021, while Johnson was freed in February.

Neither of them was exonerated through DNA evidence, meaning they do not qualify for restitution under state law.

Johnson testified in front of a Senate committee in support of restitution reform in the state.

Williams said Johnson, Strickland and others deserve to be made whole for a mistake the government made.

“I just at the moment don't see the argument of not allowing the state to take responsibility for folks when the government made a mistake and sent them to prison in the first place,” Williams said.

As for future attempts at passing similar legislation, Smith hopes the veto sparks a collaborative path forward among lawmakers to see a reform bill signed. Smith also said one possibility of making the bill more appealing would be to make the language more specific.

“I think that the vagueness of the language that Gov. Parson alluded to regarding compensation could probably be tightened up in any new legislation,” Smith said. “So I do think that that's a takeaway, honestly, kind of across the board with this veto, more specifically, with some of the language that was included, around expungement.”

Williams said he spoke about the bill with Parson’s office, which shows they may be interested in working to pass some form of reform. He also anticipates future bipartisan support.

“I feel very confident that we'll be able to create the coalition that we had this year to get that bill back across the finish line next year,” Williams said.

Sarah Kellogg has been the Missouri Statehouse and politics reporter for St. Louis Public Radio since 2021.