Missouri activists lobby to shorten prison time

Kansas City, Mo. — Missouri groups are working to shorten prison sentences for nonviolent offenders who are good candidates for parole but are denied access to the parole process. The groups lobbied at the state capitol March 11 for amendments to two mandatory-minimum state laws that toughen the release process for first-time, nonthreatening offenders.

Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE) and the NAACP proposed revisions to two state mandatory minimum sentencing laws: life without parole, and a provision that ensures inmates with Class A felonies serve at least 85 percent of their sentence before facing the parole board. The groups lobbied for three house bills that include these revisions.

"So many of these men and women were arrested when they were teenagers -- they did one violent crime when they were very young, practically children," said Hedy Harden, chair of Missouri CURE. "Many of them have already been there for 20 years and have changed their way of thinking. They're just not a threat to society anymore and deserve a second chance. We're not talking about letting everyone out. We're talking about just letting them have a chance for parole, where the board will still have to make the final decisions."

Harden said more than 120 people attended the lobbying event. Other participating coalitions included Empower Missouri, End 85% Law, Families and Friends Organizing for Reform of Juvenile Justice, Family United Transportation Services, Human Dignity and Economic Justice Coalition, Kansas City Criminal Justice Task Force, Mothers of Incarcerated Sons and Daughters, Show-Me No 85, and Stop Mass Incarceration.

Missouri-CURE and the NAACP proposed revisions to state legislators for the 85 percent statute, supporting three bills aimed to modify the current laws:

  • House Bill 491 presses to reduce sentences to 50 percent for first-time offenders before they are eligible for parole.
  • House Bill 657 proposes exclusions for those guilty of second-degree murder and for sex offenders -- provisions that CURE doesn't favor, but supports for legislative momentum.
  • Senate Bill 189 would provide a possibility for a parole hearing for those who have served at least 15 years, including those with sentences of life without parole.

"The current law impedes crime prevention efforts and compromises public safety," the CURE and NAACP proposal states. "It creates not only an unwarranted burden on taxpayers by not considering these efforts [toward rehabilitation], but also makes no real common sense to the meaning of rehabilitation."

It also notes that longer sentences with shorter parole periods hinder the offender's chance to partake in educational and vocational programs meant to ease reentry into society.

"We believe that prison should only be for those who must be incarcerated, and prisoners should have all the resources needed to turn their lives around," Harden said. "The only purpose to be in prison should be for rehabilitation and education."

This year, challenging the mandatory minimum laws in Missouri originated with prisoners, with donations from them and their families funding these efforts through the NAACP in Jefferson City.

Harden said that many of the prisoners fighting the 85 percent minimum are not doing so just to be released, as their extensive sentences provide little hope for that.

Joseph Williams, president of NAACP Branch 44AC at the South Central Correctional Center in Licking, Mo., wrote to NCR from prison, because "our branch has a strong belief in the church's role in bringing about change in the world." Williams is currently serving a 700-year sentence, yet is still fighting to reduce the mandatory minimum to 50 percent.

"They're doing this because they've grown up and realized it's the right thing to do," Harden said.

In 1994, Missouri passed the Truth-in-Sentencing Act, designed to lessen the disparity between court sentences and actual time served in prison. The mandate ensured that an offender guilty of a Class A felony -- including assault, arson, robbery, murder, forcible rape of a child, and some drug crimes -- must serve at least 85 percent of his or her sentence before facing a parole board. Life without parole, on the other hand, denies an offender the chance of ever facing the board, despite progress in rehabilitation.

Harden said states were motivated to impose the 85 percent requirement when the federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 authorized grants to states that passed truth-in-sentencing legislation. Missouri received millions of dollars from the government and built five maximum-security prisons.

"Now Missouri is trying to keep people to fill up those prisons," Harden said. "It's like they don't want to let anybody go, as expensive as it is to keep people in there."

In a country that contains one in four of the world's prisoners, Missouri's state prison population is 16 percent higher than the national average, having more than 31,500 state inmates, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Between 1990 and 2013, the state's prison population doubled (nearly half the inmates being nonviolent offenders), while the corrections budget has more than tripled since 1994.

A 2000 statement by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops indicated that parole and probation systems should be prioritized as alternatives to incarceration, especially for nonviolent offenders.

"Abandoning the parole system, as some states have done, combined with the absence of a clear commitment to rehabilitation programs within prisons, turns prisons into warehouses where inmates grow old, without hope, their lives wasted," the bishops stated.

Tougher restrictions for parole not only increase the prison population, but age it.

"We in the U.S. have the highest incarceration rate of any country, so certainly these issues at some point are going to have to come into play," said Rita Linhardt, senior staff associate at Missouri Catholic Conference.

Though the conference hasn't taken an official stance on the 85 percent requirement, its focus has been on life without parole for juveniles.

"If we keep sentencing people to life without parole -- juveniles or adults -- we'll have a geriatric prison that's basically a nursing home," she said.

According to a 2014 study by Urban Institute, prisoners age 50 and older can cost about three to five times more than younger prisoners per year, largely due to treatment for chronic diseases. In 2011, about 5,000 prisoners in the United States were more than 65 years old -- a number projected to triple by 2019.

Not only are the mandatory minimum provisions keeping nonthreatening offenders behind bars, but it's also making it harder to imprison parole violators, causing overcrowding in Missouri county jails.

"Wouldn't it make more sense to allow first-time offenders to earn their way out at 50 percent by showing good behavior, than to allow repeat offenders to continue to walk our streets?" noted End 85% Law on its website. The group adds that the 85 percent provision gives prisoners no incentive for good behavior, and likely encourages them to adapt to prison culture for survival.

The U.S. bishops noted in their 2000 statement that punishment for punishment's sake is never justifiable: "Punishment must have a redemptive purpose."

"We believe that both victims and offenders are children of God," the bishops stated. "Despite their very different claims on society, their lives and dignity should be protected and respected. We seek justice, not vengeance. We believe punishment must have clear purposes: protecting society and rehabilitating those who violate the law."

The bishops' statement noted that U.S. history tells us the prison system was "built on a moral vision of the human person and society -- one that combined a spiritual rekindling with punishment and correction. But along the way, this vision has too often been lost. … Our society seems to prefer punishment to rehabilitation and retribution to restoration."

Vital to proper rehabilitation, the bishops said, is ensuring inmates keep in contact with family members -- a difficult task when facilities are purposely located in remote areas, undermining family ties that could aid in restoration and help them understand the harm they've done, which would better prepare them to reintegrate into society.

Fighting Against Mass Incarceration Yearly (FAMILY), an affiliate of Missouri CURE, began in December with the intent to accommodate transportation out of Kansas City and St. Louis to Jefferson City for those interested in lobbying March 11. Ashley Parker, a student at Texas Southern University in Houston, organized carpools for those who either couldn't drive themselves or didn't have the funds.

Parker said she hopes FAMILY will become a platform to provide prisoners with supplies or help families visit loved ones.

"When a lot of people go away to jail, they lose contact between family and friends, so we wanted to be a go-to support system," said Parker, who was inspired to join CURE when her boyfriend was sent to prison. "We want to help prisoners who are trying to reach out, trying to prove that they have rehabilitated themselves over the years, especially for the first-time offenders -- people who went to jail at a young age and can show themselves capable of being law-abiding citizens now."

[Soli Salgado is an NCR Bertelsen intern. Her email address is ssalgado@ncronline.org.]

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