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With COVID-19 killing Missouri prison inmates, lawmaker renews push for early release

With COVID-19 killing Missouri prison inmates, lawmaker renews push for early release

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Jefferson City Correctional Center

Maximum security housing units at the Jefferson City Correctional Center sit below dormitory-style housing at the Algoa Correctional Center in Jefferson City. (Kelley McCall, Associated Press)

JEFFERSON CITY — When it comes to releasing aging offenders from Missouri prisons, a St. Charles lawmaker is trying to do what Gov. Mike Parson won’t.

Rep. Tom Hannegan, a Republican like Parson, reintroduced legislation this week that would allow a small group of elderly, nonviolent prisoners to get hearings for early release if they’ve served at least 30 years.

Hannegan said the pandemic could factor in when lawmakers consider the legislation next year.

“There are people right now who could benefit,” Hannegan said.

Although Hannegan’s proposal is not new, the early release of older inmates has become a focal point for some states in attempting to control the spread of COVID-19 behind prison walls.

In neighboring Arkansas, for example, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced in April that he asked the state’s parole board for a list of prisoners convicted of nonviolent offenses who could be released early. The resulting list covered about 1,200 inmates. Hundreds have been released.

California has released an estimated 17,600 inmates, while Kentucky has released an estimated 1,600 prisoners, according to a survey by the Brennan Center for Justice.

Although older offenders are more vulnerable to the disease, Parson has not endorsed such a move in the state’s 23,500-inmate prison system.

“People are incarcerated for a reason,” Parson, a former county sheriff, said in March.

The death toll within Missouri’s 20 prisons stood at 33 on Wednesday. Of those, at least 20 prisoners were older than 63. The vast majority had other “serious medical conditions,” a Department of Corrections spokeswoman said.

According to a 2019 annual report compiled by the agency, there were 855 inmates older than 65 behind bars in Missouri. 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 a nonviolent offender, the state’s Probation and Parole Board must determine whether there is a reasonable probability that the offender will not violate the law upon release.

Prisoners also must have a record of good conduct behind bars and have a suitable plan for living once they are released.

“It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Hannegan said.

If adopted, the measure will not result in a major windfall for the state. The department, which has more than 11,000 employees, said it would save about $361,500 per year once the measure is fully implemented in 2030.

The department currently is dealing with significant COVID-19 outbreaks at two prisons. The facility in Fulton has 192 active cases, while the prison in St. Joseph has 101.

Throughout the system, there are 580 inmates and 180 employees with active cases.

The legislation is House Bill 277.

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