Prosecuting attorneys across the state are eyeing a House bill that could release inmates who otherwise would spend their life in jail.
Franklin County Prosecutor Matt Becker said there is concern about HB 195 which would allow for a reduction in a life without parole (LWOP) sentence. If the bill would be approved it would allow for parole of those convicted felons.
There are restrictions and requirements of the potential parolees, but prosecutors would have to try them again in a new court setting. That includes calling witnesses and victims or families.
“What the victim understood was going to happen has been yanked out from underneath them,” Becker commented.
HB 195 was introduced by Rep. Jim Neely, R-Cameron, and testimony is being heard in the House Special Committee on Criminal Justice Reform.
The bill stipulates that convicts seeking to be released file a petition after serving 25 years of their sentence.
To be elegible, they must accept accountability for their crime. For those who have maintained innocence, other criteria would apply.
The convict seeking parole must have made “reasonable efforts toward rehabilitation” including rehabilitation programs, substance abuse treatment, communication classes, victim impact classes, vocational training and others.
The bill’s language states their original offense cannot have included “aggravated circumstances,” however, that broad description must be proven by prosecutors.
Becker noted that when a convict filed a petition for release there would be a “mini trial” where witnesses would be called to prove there were aggravated circumstances.
“We would have to call, again, witnesses and victims 25 years later and force them to go through it again,” he added.
For some cases, investigators or victims may be deceased. Police officers may be retired, and for some, memories of the event may have been forgotten.
LWOP sentences are primarily given in first-degree murder convictions or certain sex crimes against children under the age of 12.
The convicts are either sentenced to LWOP following a trial or under a plea deal. Typically in a plea deal, the prosecutor and the victim or family agrees to life in prison because there is no chance for release.
Moreover, if the convict is relatively young — ages 20-30 — when sentenced, Becker said, they would only be in their late 40s or 50s when they are released.
“These aren’t all people in their 80s or 90s,” he added. “They could be younger defendants convicted of serious crimes who would potentially get out of prison.”
Becker told The Missourian he will be meeting with local legislators to discuss House Bill 195.
The bill has caught the attention of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (MAPA).
In an email to Missouri prosecutors, Darrell Moore, MAPA executive director, stated he testified against the bill in front of the special committee.
According to Moore, victims’ families have been assured by prosecutors and judges that the person who killed their loved one would serve LWOP.
“This is especially true in cases where prosecutors advised a family that it would be the best certain disposition (or perhaps other reasons) in taking a plea to first-degree murder with LWOP instead of pursuing the death penalty,” Moore wrote.
He also said the bill undermines the argument of those seeking to abolish the death penalty.
Testifying in favor of the bill have been the American Civil Liberties Union, public defenders, criminal defense attorneys, social workers and people representing convicts.
Moore urged prosecutors to speak with their local state reps to state their opposition of the bill, as well as victims and families impacted by the bill.
“The focus obviously is on first-degree murder cases though some of you may have cases where a person is doing LWOP for a crime against a child under 12 years old,” Moore wrote.