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.
In his address, Fischer told legislators, “We know our partners in the legislative and executive branches are committed to doing the best job possible to make Missouri better. We are no different. The state of the judiciary is good.” 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.”
Fischer outlined how the courts have created a pathway for military spouses who are licensed attorneys to practice law while they are in Missouri. The new rule went into effect at the beginning of the year to allow lawyers with licenses in good standing in other jurisdictions and whose spouses are active service members stationed in Missouri or a contiguous state to apply for temporary admission to practice law in Missouri. Fischer said. “Allowing these qualified attorneys to share their legal talents with our citizens while they are in our state will honor the sacrifice they make as military spouses and will serve Missourians well.”
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.”
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.
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.
“It was incredibly traumatizing,” said state Rep. Curtis Trent, who sponsors the bill. “A lot of people, especially people with young families, were concerned that this sort of thing could happen. I think there was a lot of concern and outrage over the length of time it took to issue the Amber Alert. People were questioning the efficiency of that system, and so there was just a lot of uncertainty, a lot of confusion, and a lot of anger that such a thing had happened despite all the safeguards that had been attempted to be put in place to prevent it.”
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.
“What we are saying is that we have these safeguards in place, we have these systems in place to try to save lives. They should operate as effectively as possible,” said Trent.
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, but Trent said 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.
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