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Move to release older prisoners in Missouri could advance in House

Move to release older prisoners in Missouri could advance in House

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JEFFERSON CITY — An initiative to release some aging, nonviolent offenders from Missouri prisons is up for discussion in a House committee.

Pending closures related to the winter storm, the House Special Committee on Criminal Justice is scheduled to meet Tuesday to debate legislation allowing a small group of elderly prisoners to get hearings for early release if they’ve served at least 30 years of their sentences.

The panel is chaired by Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin.

The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Tom Hannegan, R-St. Charles, comes as other states have moved to release older inmates in an attempt to control the spread of COVID-19 within correctional facilities.

Hundreds have been released in Arkansas. Kentucky and California have released thousands.

Although older offenders are more vulnerable to the deadly respiratory disease, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has not endorsed such a move in the state’s prison system.

In Missouri, 42 inmates and six employees of the Department of Corrections have died in connection with the coronavirus. The numbers of those testing positive have dropped in recent months, with 68 active cases among inmates as of Monday.

According to a 2019 annual report compiled by the agency, Missouri had 855 inmates older than 65 behind bars. But an analysis of Hannegan’s proposal found only about 57 would qualify to be released under the terms outlined in the bill.

In addition to being nonviolent offenders, these older prisoners would have to secure a finding from the state’s Probation and Parole Board that there is a reasonable probability that they would not violate the law after release.

Eligible prisoners also would need a record of good conduct behind bars and have a suitable plan for living once they are released.

Supporters of the legislation say releasing the inmates would save money on medical costs without jeopardizing safety.

Amy Breihan of the MacArthur Justice Center told the committee last week that incarcerated individuals age 50 or older are significantly more likely to suffer from one or more chronic health conditions.

“These costs do not result in any significant gains to public safety because this population (incarcerated persons 65 years of age and older) are very low risk to reoffend. There is a ‘criminological consensus’ that, at 50 years of age, ‘recidivism in all crime categories plummets,’” she said.

The American Civil Liberties Union also is backing the proposal.

“What this bill does is reinstate humanity in our parole process, allowing those who have served time to be evaluated for parole rather than be forgotten and allowing those who are not granted parole to be re-evaluated on a regular basis,” ACLU legislative associate Mo Del Villar told the committee last week.

The Missouri Catholic Conference also supports such releases.

“We believe it is fitting to allow the possibility of parole for these individuals. It would put them in line with the current sentencing structure, reduce prison health care costs, and provide a roadmap for an effective way to safely reduce our prison population,” the organization said in a statement.

The Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys is opposed to the legislation.

The legislation is House Bill 277.

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