With the Missouri legislature closing in on its last month in session, few new proposals are being offered. One was heard recently before the House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee.
It would open the possibility for older prison inmates to get early release. Under the measure, any offender 65 or older with no prior violent felony convictions, and who is serving a life sentence without parole, must receive a parole hearing upon serving 25 years.
Lawyer Christoper Wilson with the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys came to the hearing armed with arguments against the plan.
He mentioned a 27-year-old convicted murderer he prosecuted who could be free in 38 years after he’d assured the victim’s family the perpetrator would never set foot in public again.
Given the scenario, Wilson said prosecutors would be forced to seek the death penalty much more frequently.
“That will start happening the day after this is passed….The unintended consequence for prosecutors, ‘How many cases am I now going to seek the death on because they’ve changed the rules’.”
One of the arguments made by the bill’s proponents is that it would save taxpayer money by emptying prisons of people who don’t pose a risk to society.
Wilson dismisses the claim with the contention there would be cost savings for a handful of prisoner in the first year, but parole boards would ultimately be playing a guessing game with dangerous inmates.
“It only takes one mistake for someone out there to suffer greatly” said Wilson. “And it’s not the parole board that hears ‘Why was this person out’. It’s not the legislature that hears ‘Why was this person out’. It’s prosecutors that hear ‘Why was this person out of custody’.”
House Republican Tom Hannegan of St. Charles is the bill’s sponsor. He thinks parole boards would act responsibly when considering early releases.
“You know I think they would take into consideration all the circumstances of the degree of severity, peoples concerns and comments” said Hannegan. “I don’t think it’s just ‘Hey let’s let them out’. They have to go through this system. This is our system.”
House Democrat Bruce Franks of St. Louis sits on the committee which heard the measure.
He brought up a situation in which his family thought the perpetrator of violence against a member was getting life without parole, but had actually been released in 2015. Franks said the man was now working with kids and trying to “rectify” his wrongdoing.
He also said the measure could serve to correct a miscarriage of justice. “We’ve seen all too often cases where prosecutors were wrong, in cases where prosecutors admitted they were wrong” said Franks. “I thinks that this bill rectifies, or tries to rectify some of those situations.”
The measure calls on a parole board to place conditions on any inmate being considered for release. The offender would have to have demonstrated good conduct and self-rehabilitation while incarcerated.
The board would have to determine if the inmate had sufficient community and family support, and presented a minimal mental health risk.
Anyone released under the proposal’s provisions would be subject to five years of supervision by a parole board. Convicted sex offenders would not be eligible for release.
The bill was heard in committee, but has not advanced further.