Expungement Bills Combined, Continue to Move

An effort to expunge certain offenses from an individual’s criminal record is gaining traction in the legislature.  The Senate Committee on Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence recently voted “Do Pass”  SB 588, sponsored by Sen. Bob Dixon (R-Springfield).  Two other expungement bills,SB 603, sponsored by Sen. Kiki Curls (D-Kansas City) and SB 942, sponsored by Sen. Jamilah Nasheed (D-St. Louis) were combined with SB 588 to make an omnibus bill.

Although each bill reflected some differences, all the bills as combined in the substitue will implement a process whereby certain offenses (including misdemeanors and felonies) can be reviewed by the court, expunged and closed to viewing by the general public.  The substitue bill will shorten the waiting period for the offender to seek an expungement and define the number of petitions that can be filed before the court.

At this point a Senate Committee Substitute will be prepared to reflect elements of all the bills and will be put on the Senate Calendar for debate.  The MCC supports a meaningful expungement process as it allows ex-offenders to put the past behind them and move forward with a second chance at employment and other opportunities.

House Committee Passes Juvenile Sentencing Bill

Agreeing that youth should be treated differently than adults, the House Select Judiciary Committee this week passed HB 1995 by a vote of 7-2.  Sponsored by Rep. Robert Cornejo (R-St. Peter) the bill repeals the mandatory life without parole (LWOP) sentences for juveniles convicted of first degree murder that was in Missouri statute.  Those previously sentenced to LWOP would be given the opportunity to petition the court for review of their sentences.  Moving forward, any youth convicted of first degree murder may be sentenced from 25 to 40 years or life imprisonment with parole.  The court must evaluate certain factors when assessing punishment.

The bill addresses a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that banned mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles who commit murder.  A recent decision this year made the 2012 ruling retroactive and allowed youth sentenced to LWOP to get their sentence reviewed.  This ruling affects about 80 Missouri cases.

The MCC supports HB 1995 because we believe youth who commit crimes are not as mature as adults and they have the ability to be rehabilitated.  HB 1995 now goes on the House Calendar for debate.  

Senate Committee Hears Bills for Juvenile Reform

This week the Senate heard two bills relating to how juvenile offenders are treated.  Sponsored by Sen. Wayne Wallingford (R-Cape Girardeau) SB 618 would keep juveniles under 17 who are charged with a crime housed in a juvenile detention facility before their trial. The other bill, SB 684 would require the court to do an evaluation for juvenile offenders to determine whether dual jurisdiction is appropriate for certain juvenile offenders.

Numerous individuals and organizations, including the MCC, spoke in support of SB 618.  Witnesses reminded the committee that housing youth with adult offenders in jails can be traumatizing and result in abuse or even rape.  If youth are separated in adult jails they are often in isolation cells which can lead to depression and suicide.  Advocates noted that space is available in the juvenile system to safely house those youth charged with a crime, as youth arrests have dropped significantly in Missouri. 

In supporting SB 684, advocates noted that many judges already do an evaluation for youth charged as an adult, but the bill would now require all judges to see that the evaluation was completed.

The committee took no action on the bills.

MCC Testifies in Support of Early Parole of Geriatric Inmates

This week the House Corrections Committee heard a bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Lair (R-Chillicothe) that would allow for the early parole of geriatric inmates. Under HB 1963, any incarcerated offender 65 years of age or older who has no prior felony convictions of a violent nature and who is serving a sentence of life without parole for a minimum of 50 years must receive a parole hearing upon serving 25 years.

In introducing his bill, Rep. Lair reminded the committee that it is very costly for the DOC to house aging inmates with serious health problems like Alzheimer’s.  His bill would impact only a handful of inmates with good institutional records and would not entitle them to release, but only to a parole hearing.

In supporting the bill the MCC testified that there is a growing national movement for reform of the criminal justice system and that HB 1963 would be a good first step in restoring some balance to sentencing policy.

The committee took no action on the bill.

Director of DOC Confronted About Executioners’ Payments

This week George Lombardi, Director of the Department of Corrections (DOC), faced tough questions before the Appropriations Committee on Public Safety and Corrections regarding payments made to individuals who assist with executions.  Lombardi revealed that the DOC does not give 1099 tax forms to those employees and there is no Department policy or procedure to ensure that these individuals report their earnings to the IRS. 

It is estimated that since 2013, over $284,000 in cash has been hand delivered in envelopes by DOC officials to those who assist with executions.  The largest amount for each execution, approximately $7,000, goes to the drug supplier. Individual team members receive in the range of $2,000-$3,000 for each execution.

Lombardi defended the DOC’s action by stating that if the identities of the participants were not kept secret, the death penalty would end in Missouri because no one would participate in the process. Lombardi noted that the DOC has not issued 1099s to execution team members since the administration of Governor John Ashcroft.

Lombardi was also challenged on why the DOC budget did not line item the expenses for executions, but used money from other budget categories.

Supreme Court Rules that Juveniles with Life Sentences for Murder Must Have a Chance at Freedom

This week the U.S. Supreme Court in Montgomery v. Louisiana ruled that any juvenile sentenced to life imprisonment for murder must have a chance to argue for release.

In a 6-3 ruling the court held that its 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama which banned mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles must be applied retroactively. This will allow juveniles already imprisoned for life the opportunity for possible early release.

The ruling could impact 81 cases in Missouri where juveniles convicted of first degree murder have long exhausted their appeals. They could now get a new re-sentencing hearing or a possible parole hearing.

The Montgomery ruling continues a trend over the last decade in which the high court has ruled that crimes committed by youths under 18 must be treated differently than adults who commit the same crime.  The court views that juveniles are less mature than adults and more capable of rehabilitation.

House Committee Hears Juvenile Sentencing Bill

This week the House Civil and Criminal Proceedings Committee heard HB 1995, sponsored by Rep. Robert Cornejo (R-St. Peters).   This bill specifies that an individual found guilty of murder in the first degree who was under the age of 18 may only be sentenced to 25 to 40 years or life imprisonment with the possibility of parole.  This bill addresses the void in Missouri law due to the Miller v Alabama ruling (see above story) that banned mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles.

One witness in support of the bill was Billy Harris, who stressed that juveniles have great potential to change.  Harris, who was convicted of murder when just a teenager, indicated that he used his incarceration to get his GED and better himself.  Once released he went to college, received a degree, now works for a non-profit organization and has been a law abiding citizen for over 15 years.

The MCC testified in support of the bill, noting that the bill gives juveniles who could prove their rehabilitation a second chance at life. Church teachings stress that it is a failure of society to treat young people as though they were fully formed adults.  Pope Francis himself has expressed concern about youth being sentenced to a lifetime behind bars and has encouraged sentences that allow for meaningful reform and hope for young offenders.

The committee took no action on the bill.

Ex-offenders Testify in Support of Expungement Bills

Recognizing the prison reform movement that is gaining popularity across the country, the Senate Judiciary Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence this week heard several bills that deal with the expungement of criminal records.  The bills included SB 588, sponsored by Sen. Dixon, (R-Springfield), SB 603 sponsored by Sen. Kiki Curls (D-Kansas City) and SB 942, sponsored by Sen. Jamilah Nasheed (D-St. Louis).  While there are differences in the bills, all the legislation would establish a process whereby ex-offenders could go through the court to have records of certain crimes sealed from the public.

Numerous ex-offenders  testified to the committee that an expungement process would allow them to put their past behind them and move forward. Several indicated how difficult it was, even years after completing their sentence, to find meaningful employment and support their families because of their criminal record.

The MCC supports the concept of expungement as it follows the principles of restorative justice by allowing ex-offenders the opportunity to be restored in the community once they have been held accountable for the harm they caused.

The committee took no actions on the expungement bills.

General Assembly Convenes for 2016 Session

Wednesday the Missouri General Assembly convened for its 2016 session. House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Popular Bluff) set out some legislative priorities in an address to the Missouri House. See this St. Louis Post-Dispatch article for more on Richardson’s address. The new President Pro Tem of the Senate, Ron Richard (R-Joplin), skipped the customary opening speech and just told Senators to get to work.

Ethics reform will be a top priority for legislators. Numerous bills and proposed constitutional amendments have been introduced. Some of the ideas being proposed include: banning gifts from lobbyists to legislators; limiting campaign contributions and requiring a “cooling off” period before a legislator leaving office can become a lobbyist.

House Speaker Richardson is indicating he is not keen on spending large chunks of time on Right to Work. Last year the legislature passed a Right to Work bill but Governor Nixon vetoed it. The legislature failed to override the veto. See this St. Louis Post Dispatch article for more.

In the wake of the videos last summer showing officials of Planned Parenthood talking about the trade in fetal body parts, legislators are determined to prevent such practices in Missouri. Senator Bob Onder (R-St. Louis) has filed SB 644. (See “Pro-life Bill Addressing Planned Parenthood Videos Set For Hearing” article for more details.) The Missouri Catholic Conference (MCC) will be working to pass pro-life bills like Senator Onder’s legislation.

Over the past several years, Missouri has refused to expand Medicaid despite the offer by the federal government to cover all of the costs. The expansion would enable more of the working poor to gain health coverage. The MCC supports both reform and expansion of Medicaid, but action in 2016 seems unlikely.

Both Republicans and Democrats appear interested in reforming the criminal justice system, including measures that would help ex-felons start new lives after serving their time in prison. (See “Criminal Justice Reform is in Vogue” for more details.)

In addition to considering hundreds of bills on a wide variety of topics, legislators must pass a state budget for fiscal year 2017, which begins July 1. This year the MCC will seek continued funding for services that help women choose life over abortion and assistance for refugees who have fled persecution in other parts of the globe.

These are just a few of the issues the MCC expects to surface in 2016. But each year there are surprises – issues that emerge that were not on anyone’s radar screen at the beginning of the year. Check the MCC Update each week for the latest developments

Governor Commutes Death Sentence – Have You Sent Your Thank You Note Yet?

Last Friday afternoon, Governor Nixon commuted the death sentence of Kimber Edwards to life in prison without parole. Edwards  was scheduled to be executed on Oct. 6th.  Governor Nixon did not explain his decision, other than to say it came after a “thorough review of the facts” and was “not taken lightly.” He did note that he believed the evidence did support the jury’s decision to convict Edwards of first-degree murder.

Edwards’ lawyers had raised claims that their client was wrongly convicted of the murder-for-hire of his ex-wife based on the fact that the admitted killer recanted his earlier statement and now claimed Edwards was innocent of any involvement in the crime. The lawyers also brought evidence that the incriminating statements Edwards made before trial were part of a coerced confession.

The MCC is urging its network members to send a note of appreciation to the Governor by calling him at 573-751-3222 or emailing him.  Thank the governor for showing mercy in this case. Edwards’ commutation is only the second time Jay Nixon has stopped an execution while serving as governor.

Governor Nixon’s commutation came on the heels of Pope Francis historic address to the U.S. Congress on Sept. 24th in which he advocated for an end to the death penalty worldwide.