This week we heard the State of the Judiciary speech by Missouri’s Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Zel Fischer. In his speech he stated that current rules allow courts to charge amounts that can be out of reach, leaving the accused to wait in jail for their trial.
Over the past year, the Supreme Court has surveyed judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law professors and court officials in order to come up with “common sense modifications,” Fischer said too many people who were arrested couldn’t afford bail for even low-level offenses.
“Though presumed innocent, they lose their jobs, cannot support their families and are more likely to reoffend,” he said.
The new rules, set to take effect July 1, not only limit how long a defendant can be detained without a hearing but add further provisions that limit a court’s ability to order payments in the first place.
The new plan played into the overall push for criminal justice change throughout Fischer’s speech, echoing Gov. Mike Parson’s call in his State of the State address three weeks earlier to reform, rather than expand, Missouri’s prison system.
Although Fischer said he had always been tough on crime, he said that mindset was not necessarily “smart on crime” anymore. He pointed to the state’s high incarceration rates.
“I think we ought to save our prisons for those we are afraid of, not just mad at,” Fischer said.
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.
“This is a common sense provision in the first part of the bill that says if you can’t consent to a tattoo or to have your ears pierced, that you cannot consent to prostitution,” said state Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, who sponsors the bill. She also pointed out that the average age a girl is forced into prostitution is 14, and her life expectancy after entering into prostitution is seven years.
Coleman also noted it can be difficult for minors to prove coercion because trafficking victims have often been forced to abuse drugs. “By the time that she’s arrested it’s difficult to untangle and prove force or coercion because at that point she may be paying off fines and paying off her drug use,” said Coleman.
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.” Advocates say 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.
HB 324 was heard in the Corrections Committee this week. This bills attempts to regulate the flying of drones over our state penitentiaries. The DOC is aware of at least 11 incursions since 2016. There is no current law regulating this new technology. HB 324 will make it illegal to knowingly fly drones over a penitentiary and a felony to bring in contraband such as weapons, drugs or cell phones. This bill will hopefully make it a little safer for the DOC staff and the offenders.