Criminal justice reform doesn't happen -- why?

In the largest sense, I don't know why criminal justice reform doesn't happen -- reform of our sentencing laws, bail bond system, parole board operations, use of solitary confinement. I could go on. There's more injustice in our prisons and jails and legislators acknowledge that it exists. Our jails and prisons are expensive to operate and when reform bills are discussed in legislative committees and on federal and state legislative floors, everybody agrees systemic injustice is rampant.

The New York Times offers a good analysis this week of all the little things that have coalesced to block Senate action on reduction of sentence length for nonviolent crimes. I won't try to summarize it here. It is a long, discouraging list.

Instead, I've been thinking about the very limited successes we have had in Missouri in the 10 years I've been an advocate for reform. The prison population here has grown from about 8,500 in 1980 to 34,000 and still rising today, despite a steep reduction in crime across the state, including in Kansas City and St. Louis -- and, yes, Ferguson.

In 2006 Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Ray Price, a Republican appointee, gave a ringing call for reform. And two years later a freshman Republican representative, Gary Fuhr, who came into the House newly retired from the FBI, wrote a bill that enables most parolees to cut their remaining sentence in half by good behavior. The bill passed and it's been an effective change. But in 2010 Fuhr's seat was redistricted, and he declined to run in his new district.

Around 2010 the Missouri Bar began revision of the Missouri Criminal Code -- not to create new legislation but to harmonize language and some penalties. For example, different laws set different theft totals (value of stolen property) as felonies and needed to be regularized. The revision reduced the disparity in sentencing for possession of powdered and crack cocaine from 75 grams to 1 down to 18 grams to 1, meaning you get the same punishment for possession of 18 grams of powdered cocaine that you get for possession of one gram of crack cocaine. And the code revision reduced penalties for the first several possessions of small amounts of drugs -- except for crack cocaine -- from felonies to misdemeanors. The state legislature voted for the revised code, but it doesn't go into effect until January 2017 -- and none of the provision benefits are retroactive. Also, it adds a sentencing level that makes longer sentences possible. Many think this will offset any prison population reduction for drug possession. The code revision is a wash, not a strategy to close prisons or reform the system.

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But meanwhile in 2012, Speaker Steven Tilley insisted that the disparity between powder and crack cocaine be reduced then and there. He was not willing to wait for enactment of the code revision. Like Gary Fuhr, Steve Tilley stuck to it, did the work, and made it happen -- in this case out of the sheer force of his office. And still the disparity is 18-1, not the one-to-one that is good science.

Then there was the ban on granting food stamps to anyone with a felony drug conviction. This had been passed by Congress in the '90s with a provision for the states to opt out. Early in my advocacy career, I was in a Senate office making the case for big reforms, and the chief of staff said I should go for something small. I said, "Oh, you mean like opting out of the food stamp ban?" He laughed and told me that it had come every year for the 14 years he had worked in the legislature. But finally in 2014, our state-wide Empower Missouri criminal justice task force along with some allies got Missouri to opt out. Missouri was the 43rd state to do so.

Then last year, the culmination of a year's strategic effort was that the governor signed an executive order banning the question "Do you have a felony conviction?" from state job applications. The employer can ask the question and do a background check later in the process, but a felony conviction can't be used as an initial sorting mechanism for state jobs.

That's all she wrote. I could give you a long list of the failures, but those are our successes. A new session begins in January. I'm trying to make meaning of the past in order to plan next steps.


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