Representative Jim Neely's Capitol Report
Members of the House and Senate gathered in the House Chamber this week to get an update on the state of Missouri’s judicial branch. Lawmakers listened to the annual State of the Judiciary Address that was delivered by Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Zel Fischer.
He used his speech to address a variety of topics ranging from the importance of treatment courts to a new rule to benefit military spouses to a rule change that will make pretrial release conditions fairer for low-income defendants.
As he talked about the benefits of treatment courts, Fischer explained to the House and Senate members that it’s not enough for the courts to simply resolve cases. Instead, courts must help change lives by breaking the cycle of crime among nonviolent offenders and make them more productive. Fischer also praised Gov. Parson for his commitment to not build another prison while he is in office.
Fischer said, “When I began practicing law three decades ago, we were all told the proper answer was to be tough on crime. But, as time has proven, being tough on crime is not necessarily being smart on crime. Our national incarceration rates have ballooned – and for many nonviolent offenders, we have failed to address their underlying issues of substance abuse and mental illness. Let’s save our prisons for those we are afraid of, not just mad at.”
In discussing the change to the rules covering pretrial release, Fischer said, “The problem is real. Too many who are arrested cannot afford bail even for low-level offenses and remain in jail awaiting a hearing. Though presumed innocent, they lose their jobs, cannot support their families and are more likely to reoffend.” The rule change will require judges to first consider non-monetary conditions of release and will allow monetary conditions only if they are necessary and only in an amount that doesn’t exceed what is necessary to ensure safety. Fischer said judges must “ensure those accused of crime are fairly treated according to the law, and not their pocket books.”
Protecting Victims of Sex Trafficking (HB 397)
House members gave overwhelming approval this week to legislation meant to protect underage victims of sex trafficking from prosecution. Lawmakers endorsed the change to ensure young people who are forced into prostitution aren’t further traumatized by facing criminal charges.
Current law in Missouri makes it an affirmative defense for a minor charged with prostitution to have been acting under coercion at the time of the crime. House Bill 397 would remove the coercion requirement and make it an affirmative defense that the defendant was under the age of 18.
The average age a girl is forced into prostitution is 14, and her life expectancy after entering into prostitution is seven years.
It can be difficult for minors to prove coercion because trafficking victims have often been forced to abuse drugs. By the time that one’s arrested it’s difficult to untangle and prove force or coercion.
The legislation would also allow a person guilty of prostitution while a minor to apply to the courts to have records of that crime expunged. In addition, it would add some offenses related to child abuse and sex trafficking to the state law’s definition of “pattern of criminal gang activity.” The provision is necessary because the frequency of trafficking operations being conducted by gangs has increased in recent years. The bill now moves to the Missouri Senate for consideration.
House Committee Considers Hailey’s Law (HB 185)
A House committee heard testimony this week on a bill named in honor of Hailey Owens, a 10-year-old girl who was kidnapped while walking home from a friend’s house and then murdered by her abductor. The bill’s sponsor hopes to make changes to the state’s Amber Alert system to protect other young people from suffering a similar fate.
Soon after the arrest of her killer, state officials and lawmakers turned their attention to the Amber Alert System. Though witnesses saw Owens being abducted, more than two hours passed before an Amber Alert was issued to let authorities and the public statewide know to look for her, and what her kidnapper and his vehicle looked like.
Legislators then and now said that faster issuance of an Amber Alert is unlikely to have changed the outcome in Owens’ case. She is believed to have been killed too soon after her abduction. However, the tragedy highlighted a need to expedite the issuance of alerts.
The legislation would require the Amber Alert System to be tied into the Missouri Uniform Law Enforcement System (MULES), which is the computer system that allows all law enforcement in Missouri to communicate. That means once an officer enters information about a missing child into MULES, it would at the same time be available to the Amber Alert system.
Law enforcement in Missouri has already instituted this change, the purpose of passing Hailey’s Law now is twofold: to make sure those changes remain in effect by requiring them in law, and to honor Owens by naming that law after her.
“We want to prevent any future tragedy like this from occurring, and also we call the bill ‘Hailey’s Law’ because we want to create a legacy and memorial for the girl that lost her life,” said Trent.
HB 185 would also require the state’s Amber Alert System Oversight Committee to meet at least once a year to discuss ways to improve the system. Currently there is no requirement for that committee to meet. Trent said having that committee meet regularly to evaluate the system means there will be an ongoing effort toward getting alerts out more quickly.
The bill now requires committee approval before moving to the House floor for discussion.