By Dan Viets, J.D., SMCR Board Chair
Last year, the Republican majority in both the Missouri House and Senate adopted important criminal justice reforms, including reducing by one half the length of time that many people convicted of drug felonies are under probation supervision, substantially reducing the disparity in crack and powder cocaine sentencing and expanding the use of expungement to include several non-drug related offenses, including some felonies. Most observers would not have predicted any of those actions at the beginning of the legislative session one year ago, especially because 2012 was an election year.
That is why the two bills filed by Rep. Rory Ellinger which would reduce penalties for marijuana and paraphernalia possession and which would expand expungement to include those offenses really do have a chance of passing this year.
House Bill 511 would expand expungement to include misdemeanor marijuana and paraphernalia offenses as well as many other non-violent, non sex-related offenses. House Bill 512 would prohibit arrest and eliminate the possibility of jail for misdemeanor marijuana and paraphernalia charges and would encourage the courts to make greater use of Suspended Imposition of Sentence (SIS) probation which leaves the Defendant without a conviction and without a public criminal record.
Both of these bills reflect trends which are taking place across the country. According to a report issued in January by The Sentencing Project, several states reduced the penalties for marijuana and other prohibited substance offenses last year. In addition to the legalization measures passed by voters in Colorado and Washington, several states reduced drug sentences. Those states include Georgia, Kansas, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Hawaii and Oklahoma.
In addition to Missouri, several other states also expanded the availability of expungement of criminal records. Those states include Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Utah, and Vermont.
The advent of the internet and access to databases that make criminal records easily available to the general public have greatly increased the collateral consequences of a criminal prosecution. As long as those records remain public, every employer, lender, and landlord that the Defendant encounters for the rest of his or her life may deny the defendant employment, loans or a place to live because of a conviction that may have occurred many years ago, and that has nothing to do with the ability of that individual to work, repay a loan or be a good tenant.
We hope to soon be able to report that these bills have been assigned to committees for hearing. We will keep you informed of further developments as they occur. Please do not delay in contacting those who represent you in the Missouri General Assembly.
We should all do our best to persuade our state Senators and Representatives to support Rep. Ellinger's bills.