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Missouri Legislature's Push To Crack Down On Crime Has Advocates Worried

St. Louis' Medium Security Institution.
Ashley Lisenby
Jails like St. Louis' Medium Security Institution have been targets of reform. But a bill recently passed by the Missouri Legislature moves in a different direction.

Two and a half years ago, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson spoke at a daylong forum on reducing incarceration in the Show-Me State. He said he had no desire to see additional prisons on his watch. Referencing his days as a sheriff, he said he’d observed that “a large percentage of those in jail weren’t ‘bad people,’ they were just people who made ‘terrible choices,’” the Missouri Times reported.

Now Parson is presiding over a Republican majority that seems determined to change course after some movement in the Legislature toward criminal justice reform in 2018 and 2019. Both the “Crime Bill” signed by Parson last month and some of the proposals being pushed at the crime-focused special session now underway in Jefferson City could lead to longer sentences for Missouri defendants. That includes both an increase in prison sentences that do not include the option of parole and increased incarceration in adult prisons for juveniles.

Senate Bill 1, which contains Parson’s proposal for the special session, would allow judges to try children as young as 12 as adults for armed criminal action and unlawful use of a weapon. It passed out of a Senate committee Wednesday with no discussion and was discussed on the floor of the Senate on Thursday morning.

Sarah Johnson, the director of juvenile defense and policy for the Missouri State Public Defender, as well as the leader of the state’s Children's Defense Team, has grave concerns about the juvenile provisions.

Johnson explained on St. Louis on the Air that the state has earned national recognition for how it treats juvenile offenders under “the Missouri Model,” which seeks to keep youth in small programs close to their homes. Allowing judges to certify middle school students as adult offenders would take them from programs shown to be effective.

“We are potentially increasing the number of people who are going to recidivate,” she said. “We know children who are sent to the adult system are more likely to recidivate. The scary thing is, they’re more likely to be assaulted. They’re more likely to be sexually assaulted in those facilities. We really have to ask ourselves, what do we want as a state for our children?”

Senate Bill 600 has already been signed into law and has generated similar concerns for how it treats many adult offenders.

Brendan Roediger, a professor at St. Louis University School of Law and a director in its Legal Clinics, said the proposal’s biggest impact will be eliminating parole for some offenders. A supervised system of release that requires people leaving prison to meet certain conditions, such as employment or staying away from drugs and alcohol, parole has long been used as an essential tool to ease reentry into society.

“Even the sort of ‘tough on crime’ bills of the past decade have said, ‘There needs to be 10, 15% of the time at the end of a sentence [that] needs to be parole.' Here we’re seeing the elimination of that. We’re literally seeing, ‘Here’s a bus ticket, goodbye.’”

Parson has defended both bills. Questioned yesterday by St. Louis Public Radio reporter Jaclyn Driscoll about how his latest proposal squares with his previous support for criminal justice reform and the desire not to see more prisons built on his watch, he said the prison population in Missouri has been reduced during his time in office, from 32,000 to about 25,000.

“Special session is about violent crime,” he said. “When you’re talking about juveniles, you’re not talking about little juvenile violations. You’re talking about people involved in violent crimes. If you’re talking about penalties, it’ll be more penalties because people commit violent crimes. We’re talking homicides, we’re talking about rape, we’re talking about aggravated assault. It’s strictly about violent crime.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.