Judges could ignore mandatory minimum sentencing laws for some nonviolent offenders under a bill passed Thursday by Missouri's Republican-led House, a move that's part of a broader push to revamp the state's criminal justice system.
The bill, which passed the House 140-17, wouldn't allow for reduced sentences in cases of violent crimes, sexual crimes against minors or crimes involving guns.
But the sponsor, Republican Rep. Cody Smith, told colleagues on the House floor that it could reduce the state's prison population and would give judges the flexibility to differentiate between "the folks we're scared of and the folks we're mad at."
"There's a tremendous appetite for criminal justice reform in our state and in our nation right now," said Smith, who also leads the House Budget Committee. "This is one tool in the toolbox, and an important step in the right direction."
In recent years, Missouri has had the eighth-highest incarceration rate among the states. But Department of Corrections officials have cited an overhaul of the state's criminal laws that took effect in 2017 as the cause of a recent drop in the prison population. As a result, Gov. Mike Parson and the corrections director now plan to close a prison.
Legislative researchers estimate Smith's bill could mean about 466 fewer prisoners per year and save the state as much as $3 million when fully implemented in fiscal year 2023.
Rep. Shane Roden, a Cedar Hill Republican and reserve deputy sheriff, said changing sentencing laws will, in practice, mean overcrowding at local jails because he predicted it would lead to an uptick in parole violations.
"While it may sound like we're doing a good thing by lowering the requirement, and there are some good things behind this, we've just shifted the burden," Roden said on the House floor.
Kansas City Democratic Rep. Brandon Ellington pushed lawmakers to go further to allow for possible earlier release for first-time felony offenders and older inmates.
But Ellington — a member of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus, which is backing a number of criminal justice bills — said even though his proposal was shot down, he noticed more interest among new Republican lawmakers.
The bill now heads to the Senate, where Majority Leader Caleb Rowden said the shift in public interest from tough-on-crime to smart-on-crime policy has eased the way for Republican support.
"It's not on the top of everybody's list, but I think everybody understands the importance," Rowden said of support in the Senate.
Other pending bills on criminal justice include expunging records for low-level marijuana crimes.
The House on Wednesday also gave initial approval to a bill to require parole hearings after 30 years served for prisoners at least 65 years old who were sentenced to life behind bars but had no prior violent felony convictions. Sex offenders would not be eligible.