After being a leader in prison population, Missouri is moving away from locking up non-violent offenders to serve long sentences, reports the Kansas City Star. Backed by a bipartisan group of legislators and activists, Gov. Mike Parson signed measures to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent offenses and to prohibit added prison time as punishment for people who can’t pay jail board bills. Parson said his time as a county sheriff for 12 years starting in 1992 helped inform his views. He hopes to focus on rehabilitation for inmates. “A lot of times … when you become a legislator, you want to be hard on crime — you want to be a crime fighter,” Parson said. “But the reality of it is, the system needed to change over the years because just locking people up was not always the answer.”
The tilt in attitude toward criminal justice reform has been a long time coming, said Sen. Kiki Curls. Views began to shift in 2014, when the legislature passed the first overhaul of Missouri’s criminal code since 1979. The changes, which reduced some sentences, went into effect in 2017. The emphasis on criminal justice reform has been a steady drumbeat this year, said Rep. Shamed Dogan, who chairs the House Committee on Crime Prevention and Public Safety. Rep. Bruce DeGroot, an advocate for keeping Missourians out of prison for unpaid jail debt, said legislation was spurred by stories about “debtor’s prisons,” especially in rural areas, by St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger. Dogan said legislators agree on the underlying premise of criminal justice reform: saving taxpayer money and second chances for those who commit nonviolent offenses. The new legislation could save the state up to $5.8 million. In 2016, Missouri had the eighth largest prison population per capita. In the last year, it has 2,000 fewer prisoners.