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Messenger: Amid turbulent political times, criminal justice reform forges common ground

Messenger: Amid turbulent political times, criminal justice reform forges common ground

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HB 192 signing

State Rep. Bruce DeGroot, R-Chesterfield, shares a story in the office of Gov. Mike Parson after the governor signs House Bill 192 into law on July 9. Photo used with permission courtesy of Governor Parson's Office. 

Sir Kim Darroch didn’t give me the answer I was expecting.

It was October 2016 and Darroch, then the British ambassador to the U.S., was in town for the presidential debate at Washington University between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton. Darroch met with me briefly at the Missouri History Museum before the debate.

A self-described “American political geek,” this would be the second of the presidential debates Darroch had attended that campaign. After his nation’s “Brexit” vote to separate from the European Union, I was expecting he would make a comparison between that movement and the Trump phenomenon that would sweep the trash-talking billionaire into the White House.

Darroch would have none of it.

“The similarity is overstated,” he said. As Americans were reacting to an insult-laden campaign by Trump that was completely different than other presidential races, Darroch was unfazed.

“British politics is a lively business,” he said. “It can be quite rowdy.”


Darroch resigned his position this week after the British press leaked secret cables he had sent his superiors questioning Trump’s fitness for office. Darroch called the American president “inept” and “insecure,” two opinions quite well supported by the record. Trump, of course, responded with his own public insults, and said he would no longer work with Darroch.

This is what passes for political discourse in the Age of Trump.

Criticize the president and you’re likely to end up with tire tracks on your back. This phenomenon, which is infecting even the most local of politics, is what made what happened Tuesday in the Missouri Capitol so important.

On the same day that Darroch was resigning in Washington, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson was signing a series of criminal justice reform bills that had support from a wide spectrum of political interests. There was the Republican governor surrounded by Republicans and Democrats, black and white, as he signed a bill that ended the practice of jailing poor defendants because they couldn’t afford their bills for previous stints in jail; another one that reduced minimum sentences; and a bill that made it possible for some inmates to be released on parole.

In a small way, Trump had an effect on those bills. Just by saying that he is in favor of criminal justice reform — whether he understands the issues, or actually cares about them, or not — the president gave permission for some of his followers to care, too. And they have.

After Parson signed the criminal justice reform bills, groups from the left and the right praised the action. There was left-leaning Empower Missouri, the ACLU, the Missouri Catholic Conference and the Koch Brothers-funded Americans For Prosperity, all cheering for changes that recognized that the U.S. Constitution applies to all Americans, even those who are accused of crimes.

For the past year and a half, as I have increasingly focused my work on the area of criminal justice reform, this wholehearted bipartisanship has given me an ounce of hope in what feels like the most divided political era in my lifetime. It is one area of public policy debate today — not the only one, but perhaps the most significant one — in which left and right often come together based on the fundamental premise that civil rights are worth protecting for all Americans.

As I’ve traveled the state writing about people abused by a system that amounted to modern-day debtors prisons, I’d frequently get supportive emails from readers that started something like this:

“Normally I think you’re an idiot, but …”

To this day, I suspect that people who self-identify as conservatives or liberals have come to the criminal justice reform issue from different perspectives. For some it’s a budget issue: Counties and states can no longer afford increasing jail and prison costs. For others it’s about the tyranny of a government system that constantly shakes down poor people for their milk money. And for some, it’s the simple indignity of continuing to jail poor people on petty offenses and keeping them there because they can’t afford to buy their freedom.

For Rep. Bruce DeGroot, R-Chesterfield, it’s all of the above. DeGroot was the sponsor of House Bill 192, which combined with the landmark Missouri Supreme Court ruling on the same issue should end the practice of jailing people who can’t afford to pay court costs in Missouri.

It’s an issue that traces its roots to Darroch’s home country, where in 1215, British citizens sought to limit the powers of a tyrannical monarchy. One sentence in particular in the Magna Carta sought to make sure all had access to justice, even the poor. “We will not sell, or deny, or delay right or justice to anyone,” reads clause 40.

When DeGroot called me last year to talk about the ongoing sale of justice in Missouri, I was skeptical. DeGroot and I agree on very little, politically. I had written about him before, and not in a very positive light.

But we met. We talked. We found common ground. DeGroot found a Democratic co-sponsor in state Rep. Mark Ellebracht of Liberty, even though in the Republican-controlled Legislature, he didn’t really need one.

At its core, this is what the American political system is — or was — about. It doesn’t seem that way much these days, either in Missouri or the nation’s capital, but there are slivers of hope that suggest there is light at the end of our current political tunnel of despair.

Jailed for being poor is Missouri epidemic: A series of columns from Tony Messenger

Tony Messenger has written about Missouri cases where people were charged for their time in jail or on probation, then owe more money than their fines or court costs. 

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