'Saying No Is Not The Answer': The Reasons Driving Missouri Republicans' Shift On Criminal Justice

Jul 22, 2019
Originally published on July 19, 2019 6:49 am

Before Kenneth Wilson became a Missouri House member, he worked his way up the ranks in the Platte County Sheriff’s Office. It was there, he said, his view of crime went from “bad guys go to jail” to seeing dads lose their jobs because they were jailed for not being able to pay child support.

And that’s when Wilson, a Republican from Smithville, thought there must be another way. 

“You know as a conservative — and I'm a proud conservative — you can say no all day long. But saying no is not the answer,” Wilson said. “If I say no to something, I better well have a solution.”

Criminal justice is one of the rare issues in Missouri politics where there’s some agreement on both sides of the aisle. Just this year, Missouri lawmakers (including Wilson) overwhelmingly voted in favor of a bill that gets rid of mandatory minimums for some nonviolent offenses. 

The bill, which Republican Gov. Mike Parson signed into law earlier this month, is part of a national cultural shift from “tough on crime” to “smart on crime.” Experts and lawmakers attribute that to the rising financial costs of locking more people up and a growing understanding the toll of mass incarceration, like separating families and mental health. 

“We're not dealing with, you know, the crimes of the century. A lot of times we're dealing with people that make stupid mistakes,” said Rep. Mark Ellebracht, a Liberty Democrat who co-sponsored the Missouri bill. 

The shift in tone 

Jeanette Mott Oxford remembers the “tough on crime” culture well. She served for eight years in the House as a St. Louis Democrat, and is now the executive director of Empower Missouri, which lobbied for the criminal justice bill. 

“Scorched-earth policy campaigns were being conducted where folks would paint you in the worst possible light, based on your votes on criminal justice matters,” Oxford said. 

She also pointed to pressure on the federal level, like the 1994 Crime Bill, which gave states money if they passed laws requiring that inmates serve at least 85% of their sentence. 

But while some used that tough-on-crime stance to get in or stay in office, it usually wasn’t the politician’s main focus, according to Marc Levin, the vice president of criminal justice policy at the conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation.

“The bottom line is they ran for office to cut taxes, or they ran for office primarily to improve education or economic development, or to stop abortion, or whatever it is,” he said. “ ... not many, particularly on the Republican side, not many legislators ran primarily on this issue.”

Levin also helped start Right on Crime, a national conservative campaign which advocates for decreasing the prison population by changing how nonviolent crimes are classified and funding re-entry programs. He worked with Texas lawmakers in 2007 to stop building more prisons and instead focus on reducing recidivism. He used the results ⁠— which included closing six prisons, saving $33 million ⁠— to lobby other states to change course. 

The tipping point 

Nationally, the highest incarceration rates are in Southern and Midwestern states, where Republicans hold majorities in state government. Missouri has the seventh-highest state imprisonment rate in the U.S., according to The Sentencing Project

In the past few years, states also have focused on decreasing the number of people coming into jail or prison, said Alison Lawrence, a criminal justice program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In addition to getting rid of some mandatory minimums in Missouri, the new law codifies a recent Missouri Supreme Court decision to end the practice of people being locked up for unpaid jail debts (also known as debtors’ prisons). 

“Legislators across the board are looking for ways to reduce the strict mandatory minimums that were put in place in decades past and it looks to me like Missouri's done a great job of accomplishing that,” Lawrence said. 

But it’s the growing cost of incarceration that’s hard for fiscal hawks to ignore, and the strain it puts on a state budget is one of the main factors that changed conservatives’ minds when it came to criminal justice, according to Levin. 

“When our criminal justice system became such a big part of our financial obligations, people started to look at it differently,” said House Minority Floor Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield. “... (T)hrough that shift, the conversation has expanded to not just the financial costs, but what does this actually do for our communities when we’re imprisoning people who have nonviolent crimes.” 

Chesterfield Republican Rep. Bruce DeGroot was the main sponsor of the bipartisan bill. He said it wasn’t so much the budgetary impacts that led him to make statewide changes, but St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger. 

Messenger's columns told the stories of poor defendants who were struggling to pay thousands of dollars for their time spent in jail, often for minor crimes. DeGroot said he saw himself in those people. 

“My mom raised three kids (at) 25 years old, no job, no education, no family support. She didn't even know how to drive a car,” DeGroot said. “We grew up under severe economic hardship, and I know what it's like to be poor.”

The new law takes effect Aug. 28.

Aviva Okeson-Haberman is the Missouri government and politics reporter at KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter: @avivaokeson

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