The Joplin Globe: Senate advances bill on sentencing options for first-degree murder by juveniles

BY CRYSTAL THOMAS [email protected]

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The Senate gave initial approval Monday to a bill that would give sentencing options for first-degree murder for juveniles, putting the Missouri courts in line with previous Supreme Court decisions.

If the bill becomes law, other than the current sentence of life without parole, juvenile murderers older than 16 could be assessed a minimum 50 years and be eligible for a parole hearing, while juvenile murderers younger than 16 could be assessed a minimum of 35 years and then be eligible for a parole hearing.

Supreme Court rulings left Missouri without sentencing options. Before the rulings, juveniles could get two sentences: the death penalty or life without parole. A 2005 case eliminated the death penalty as an option, and a 2012 ruling said having one sentence for first-degree murder is unconstitutional.

Missouri needs to come up with an alternative so that prosecutors could move forward with the conviction of first-degree murder.

Bill sponsor Sen. Bob Dixon said the sentence was reserved for those who have committed “cold-blooded, premeditated murder.”

“When we send someone to the Department of Corrections, the hope is they will be corrected,” Dixon said. “But it may take longer for some folks.”

On the Senate floor, he described one of these murders that resulted in a first-degree conviction: a boy brutally beat and tried to rape a girl, and then attempted to stuff her body in a toilet.

Dixon said juveniles can get the lesser charge of second-degree if he or she deserved fewer years. Dixon’s bill has support from the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

On March 15, the Missouri Supreme Court ordered about 80 inmates who were juveniles when they committed first-degree murder to be given a parole hearing after serving 25 years, after a January ruling said the 2012 case was retroactive. The orders allow 11 inmates eligible for parole this year, in the next round of hearings.

Sen. Jill Schupp, D-St. Louis, mimicked the court’s orders in her amendment to the bill under consideration by having juvenile murderers serve 25 years before receiving a parole hearing.

Schupp said allowing for a 50-year sentence amounts to the same as life in prison without parole, with the inmate dying in prison. Schupp said juveniles are still amenable to being rehabilitated as their brains fully develop.

Schupp’s amendment mirrors a House bill, which has received support from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth and the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

“We don’t know the number (of years to sentence) and certainly 25 is the minimum that we said that maybe, someone, serving in prison can turn his or her life around,” Schupp said.

Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, spoke in defense of Dixon’s sentencing structure, saying an inmate’s age upon release shouldn’t be a factor when deciding a sentence.

“The sentencing phase is what the proper sentence that provides appropriate justice for the crime,” Emery said.

Emery said the idea of children’s brains still in development is one of “those medical discoveries that has been abused.”

Schupp’s amendment was voted down.

Schupp said she was disappointed in the Senate’s lack of mercy and compassion.

Dixon’s bill not only addressed sentencing options, but the wider criminal code.

In his 143-page bill substitute, Dixon addressed more than a few topics, swallowing the language of other Senate bills: making “illegal re-entry” by immigrants a class E felony, not shackling kids and pregnant offenders, having an electronic monitoring program of felons with victim notification, and liability for uncontrolled livestock.

Emery expressed discomfort with all the new topics tackled within the omnibus bill, two additions that repeat the language of his bills about victim-impact program for those who drive while intoxicated and allowing for a bracelet to be attached to parole violators.

Other Joplin area legislators supported the bill.

Sen. Ron Richard, R-Joplin, supports the underlying issue the bill represents, but said he hasn’t looked at all of the additional topics. His biggest concern is that the additional topics are fiscally responsible and don’t dip into the state’s general revenue fund.

Richard said after the Senate, the bill still needs to face the House.

“(The bill’s) not going to be unchanged,” Richard said. “It’s definitely going to come back less voluminous than right now.”

Sen. David Sater, R-Cassville, said that he’s comfortable with a sentencing structure because individuals who commit first-degree murder have “something really wrong with them” and “shouldn’t be allowed in society.”

Sater said he is a big fan of an addition to the bill that would make an immigrant who is deported for committing a crime felons for re-entering the state.

“We can’t depend on the federal government to keep our state safe,” Sater said. “(The) amendment will go in that direction.”

All area legislators agree on one thing: they hate omnibus bills.

What next?

The Senate bill needs one more vote before it can go to the House.

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