Parole hearings, aid for juvenile offenders among items before Senate Judiciary Committee | St. Louis Public Radio

Parole hearings, aid for juvenile offenders among items before Senate Judiciary Committee

Feb 11, 2016

The Missouri Senate Judiciary Committee is weighing a series of new bills that aim for criminal justice reform. One would increase educational and job opportunities for inmates.

The bill’s sponsor, Senator Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City, says that she drafted SB 604 in reaction to budget cuts to the Department of Corrections’ educational funds in recent years. She suggested that increased educational programs will undoubtedly lead to revenue for the state, but that’s a hard number to quantify. Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, and chairman of the committee, agreed. 

“We know it’s going to be positive, we just don’t know how much,” said Dixon. 

The total budget for The Department of Corrections in fiscal year 2016 was approximately $710 million. About 5 percent of that went to rehabilitative programs.

Michael Barrett, director of state public defender system, said “Ninety-nine percent of inmates have one thing in common, they’re getting out. So, the question becomes, what kind of inmate do you want released. An educated one or an uneducated one?”

Many say educated inmates are less likely to be repeat offenders, because these programs grant them access to jobs, insurance and life skills.

Senator Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City

The bill sponsored by Curls that sparked most discussion, however, was on sentencing reform. 

Parole hearing for serious offenders

SB 674 would allow offenders who have no prior convictions and who are serving a sentence longer than 15 years to be eligible for review by the Board of Probation and Parole on their fifteenth year in prison. Curls says this could provide a second chance to inmates who committed a crime at a young age and have proven their maturity during their incarcerated period. 

“I’m not relieving any of the juveniles of any responsibility for the crime that has been committed, but this is just so we can have the discussion on opening and reviewing some of the cases in instances when some of the sentences may have been excessive,” said Curls. 

The board would be directed to review the circumstances under which an inmate was convicted, including age and history of abuse. It would also have to determine if each individual reached rehabilitation during their time in prison. 

Brain development, poverty and crime

Supporters say studies show that human brains don’t fully mature until a person is in their late-20s. Teens lack impulse control and other mental capacities that contribute to their understandings of right and wrong. In this way, they shouldn’t be held to the same legal standards as adults. 

But opponents are weary of accepting age demographics as fodder for judicial pardon. 

“I hear over and over this business about juveniles and their brains not being mature,” said Sen. Bob Onder, R-St. Charles. “You know, I have some teenagers and they do things like forget their homework, and don’t take a shower, and forget to do their chores. But, when we’re talking armed criminal action, crimes involving homicide, armed robbery, I don’t know that I’m ready to say they’re just not grown up yet.”

Sen. Bob Dixon, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, suggested that some crimes are so malicious, they should never be pardoned, no matter the circumstances the offender faced in their personal life. 

Senator Bob Dixon, R-Springfield
Credit Official photo

“We’re talking about the most heinous of crimes,” said Dixon. “We try to make the range of crimes fit not the age of the offender, but the crime. … We have to have at least some options in statute for the types of crimes that are really unthinkable, regardless of age.”

Opponents fear inmates convicted of violent crimes could qualify for a parole hearing too easily, leading to murderers walking free.

In testimony, some supporters pointed to such things as poverty, access to education and diet as dramatically affecting brain development in children and teens. 

“With all due respect to everyone’s children, they probably didn’t grow up in abject poverty,” said Natalie Hull, pubic defender representing Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “Your children probably didn’t grow up with the drug influences that many of the public defender clients did. All of those things affect the development of the prefrontal lobe, to get really technical with you.”

The supporters pointed to a 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience for support. It showed that children living in the lowest income bracket had up to 6 percent less surface area in their brains than children raised in families making over $150,000 a year. In addition, The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child and Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child cite conditions of extreme poverty as possible impediments to healthy brain development. 

“The good news is, earlier in our lives, we are able to be changed,” said Jeanette Mott Oxford, executive director of Empower Missouri. “With early interventions, people can have their lives turned totally around and can be very productive and fruitful citizens for our world. Again, this [bill] does not say you’re automatically going to be released from prison. It just says, let’s take a look.”

Jeanette Mott Oxford, executive director of Empower Missouri
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

The senators weren’t convinced.

“We’ve had poverty forever … I mean, poverty isn’t necessarily — I can’t see where it’s necessarily detrimental to brain development,” said Sen. Ed Emery, R-Nevada. 

Opponents strongly indicated that the conditions that accompany poverty should not be used as an excuse or eventual pardon for criminal behavior.

“A billion people — a billion with a ‘B’ — live on a dollar a day, and they’re not sticking guns in people’s faces and pulling the trigger,” said Onder. “They’re not all raping. They’re not all committing armed robberies. … So, lack of money alone doesn’t cause one to do this. And, you know, the number one nutritional problem among poor people is obesity. Eating junk food causes you to commit felonies? I don’t buy it.”

Matt Selby, Stone Country prosecuting attorney, was the only person to testify in opposition to the bill. He said the bill would be somewhat inadequate in addressing excessive incarceration, because inmates facing a sentence of more than 15 years would have previously met a chance at parole and failed because of the nature of the crime they committed and their behavior while in prison. 

In 2015, Missouri prisons incarcerated 32,330 offenders. About 25 percent of them have maximum sentences for their convicted crime. For an inmate to be serving more than 15 years, he or she would have committed a Class A Felony under Missouri Law. 

“These are the worst of the worst crimes,” said Selby. 

Crimes under this category include murder, kidnapping, forcible rape of a child under 12 years old, armed robbery, and some drug crimes, like dealing within 2,000 feet of a school. Opponents of the bill say that these are the offenders that should never step foot outside of a prison.

Selby also pointed out a distinction. “The bill is not limited to juveniles. It includes any offender,” said Selby. 

Curls said she would be willing to work with the senators to provide a narrower description of which offenders could be eligible for a parole hearing.

“I know this tends to be something a bit controversial for some, but we need to begin to have the discussion,” said Curls.

Focus on juveniles

In the same hearing, Sen. Wayne Wallingford, R-Cape Girardeau, introduced two bills that aimed to improve life for juveniles in prison. SB 618 would prohibit the detention of youths tried as adults in adult jails before the age of 17. 

Supporters say that putting juveniles in adult facilities perpetuates criminal minds, instead of rehabilitating them. Teens in adult jails face negative influences like harassment, sexual assault and gang activity.

Marcia Hazelhorst, executive director of Missouri Juvenile Justice Organization, testified in support of the bill, but said her organization questions the state’s ability to house additional youths in its 17 juvenile facilities. 

“There are significant issues around holding these youth in juvenile detention facilities that would have to do with safety due to the nature of offenses committed by these youth, and there is some significant financial impact to counties.”

Hazelhorst has been working with Wallingford since last year to ensure the bill encapsulates all the complexities of the juvenile detention system. 

Tracy McClard, president of Families and Friends Organize to Reform Juvenile Justice, said this bill would affect 20 kids or fewer.  

Another bill from Wallingford (SB 684) would require a court to order an evaluation for dual jurisdiction by the Division of Youth Services when sentencing an offender under the age of 17 who is being tried as an adult. Under dual jurisdiction, courts can provide services to juveniles who have been abused, for instance, even while they are under supervision for legal violations.

“There’s not a lot of places to look for hope in jail,” said Terance Irons, a graduate of the dual jurisdiction program. “So, doing this evaluation, you can really tell that there’s someone there to help you, and in jail there’s not a lot of people there to help you.”

This bill is meant to ensure offenders and their families are aware of dual jurisdiction, and it received no opposition.

No action was taken on any of the bills. 

Mallory Daily is an intern at St. Louis Public Radio's Statehouse Bureau in Jefferson City. Follow on twitter: @malreports