Since the first day of the Missouri 2020 Legislative Session, offenders have been spreading a rumor about a law being passed for life without offenders called “The Hard Thirty,” saying Missouri Governor Mike Parson is planning to reduce all life without parole sentences to thirty years, via executive order.
In Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor E. Frankl, Frankl discussed a psychological phenomenon known as “delusion of reprieve.” Immediately before his execution the condemned man is overcome by the illusion that he might be reprieved at the last minute. Has it happened before? Yes. Can it happen again? Sure. Will Governor Parson exercise his executive power to commute all life without parole sentences? Who knows?
I chased down the circulating rumors and caught each one by its tail. There is a bill in the Missouri Senate, SB 2034. It was originally House Bill 352. It is for offenders serving life without parole for a minimum of fifty years or more and who were sentenced under section 565.008, for offenses committed prior to October 1, 1984. The offender must be sixty-five or older, have no felony convictions for dangerous felonies as defined under section 556.061 prior to the conviction for which he or she is currently incarcerated, and not be a convicted sex offender. If the offender meets these criteria, and has served thirty years or more, he or she will receive a parole hearing. Update: this bill was passed by the Missouri Senate on May 15, 2020, along with several get tougher on crime bills included in SB 600.
Offenders serving life without parole or 85% of their long sentences do not have any incentive to attend rehabilitative programs to rehabilitate themselves. Instead, many offenders, both short and long term, engage in illegal and nonproductive activities to distract themselves from the reality of being in prison. And since most offenders do not have paying jobs, they resort to “prison hustles” (gambling, stealing, extortion, drugs etc.), or they rely on the generosity of family and friends for financial support, which only perpetuates co-dependency and antisocial behavior, practically guaranteeing recidivism. Missouri offenders receive $7.50 (without a GED) or $8.50 (with a GED) once a month from the Missouri Department of Corrections (MODOC). The average premium paying job is $10.00 a month and there aren’t enough of them to go around.
When these offenders are released, the antisocial behavior and mental health issues remain. They are not rehabilitated but likely learned how to become better criminals (especially the short timers). They return to society bitter and broke, and will more than likely seek out opportunities to release the years of pent-up anger and frustration by committing more crimes, violent and nonviolent.
It appears however, that twenty-five years is the magic number for punishment and rehabilitation (that is unless Governor Parson just wanted to limit the number of clemency applications being filed). After Governor Parson’s office was bombarded with questions from the media about the 3,500 or more clemency applications awaiting his decision, Kelly Jones, Parson’s spokeswoman, told the St. Louis public radio that Parson’s office was working on a system for handling clemency requests. On January 1, 2020 Parson exercised his executive power and amended the clemency process in Missouri, changing the eligibility criteria for requesting clemency. The new procedure states, any individual confined in the Division of Adult Institutions (DAI) has the right to petition the governor of Executive Clemency if they meet the following eligibility requirements:
- Claims innocence; or
- Served 25+ years; or
- Is age 70+ and has served 12+ years and
- All judicial remedies (appeals, etc.) have been exhausted
The applicant cannot have been denied an executive clemency within the past five years. The five year time frame begins on the date the governor has denied Executive Clemency.
The only reference to life without parole is on the clemency form itself, which states under the partial commutation box option: A partial commutation may remove restrictions attached to a sentence or can reduce the sentence to a lower level, which could still involve an obligation to the state (for example, the governor could commute a life sentence without the possibility of parole to a life sentence with the possibility of parole).
No factual information has been forthcoming stating that Governor Parson has any intention of commuting life without parole sentences; the form merely uses it as an example. Out of more than 3,500 clemency requests Parson has acted on just one case. In September of 2019, Parson denied offender Russell Bucklew clemency and he was executed.
Society, or should I say politicians, do not favor the practice of executive clemency. Just recently when Kentucky’s former Republican Governor Matt Bevin exercised his executive power to pardon and commute hundreds of offenders’ sentences before leaving office. the FBI was asked to open an investigation and lawmakers are now calling for a proposed constitutional amendment to limited future governor’s ability to issue end of term pardons and commutations (see www.courier-journal.com).
On January 15, 2020 Governor Parson gave his “State of the State” speech and called on Missouri lawmakers to increase mental health resources, to toughen violent crime laws and to ramp up witness protection to address violence in Missouri’s biggest cities, St. Louis and Kansas City. (On January 28, 2020 Kansas City had its fifteenth homicide of the new year; only six of them were solved according to Fox 4 News).
Passing tougher violent crime laws hasn’t made society safer; it has led to mass incarceration. During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the get tough on violent crime rhetoric resulted in the passing of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, signed into law by then President Bill Clinton. The act known as the Crime Bill, created a Violent Offender and Truth in Sentencing Incentive Grant Program. To participate and receive money from the $3 billion federal fund, states were expected to build new prisons or expand the capacity of the old ones, and pass laws that required violent offenders to serve 85% of their sentences. From 1996-2001 every state partook in the program. Some states even ended their parole systems and enacted laws mandating offenders to serve 100% of their sentences.
Polls show that the majority of Americans favor rehabilitation over incarceration. In a November 2017 survey conducted for the ACLU’s campaign for smart justice, 71% of Americans agreed that incarceration for long periods of offender’s lives is counterproductive to public safety due to the lack of effective rehabilitation programs in prisons. (www.aclu.org www.citylab.com www.shadowproof.com www.crimereport.com www.vera.org). In a November 2018 poll conducted for the Justice Action Network (JAN) 85% of poll participants agreed that rehabilitation should be the goal of the criminal justice system instead of punishment. (Ibid.)
The prison system however is not setup to rehabilitate offenders; its setup to punish them. Its programs do not address offender’s antisocial behavior or their underlying mental health issues that pervade daily prison life, choking many offenders’ attempts at self-rehabilitation. The long-term effects of the negative prison environment not only impact offenders but also effect the department of corrections employee turnover rate, resulting in a shortage of staff, making prisons more and more dangerous.
Lawmakers throughout the United States need to propose bills that will help heal the broken and downtrodden offenders and get the process started of turning them into law abiding productive members of society. In order to do that, the 85% laws MUST be eliminated. This is common sense criminal justice reform. Releasing offenders after serving 85% and not supervising them for longer periods is not working. By repealing the 85% law more offenders will be encouraged to attend programs and rehabilitate themselves before being seen by the parole board. Offenders who are required to serve 85% do not need to do either, and some will be released regardless, only more bitter and still suffering from mental illnesses and antisocial behavioral problems. With offenders having an opportunity to be released after 50% of their sentences, they will be less likely to engage in violent behavior while incarcerated, making prisons safer and easier to manage and control, despite the nationwide shortage of staff problems.
Eliminating the 85% laws will not affect my sentence nor many others, but since being in prison for twenty-five years, I have objectively observed the behavior of offenders and know that passing laws that give long-term offenders hope of a second chance to make a life for themselves is a move in the right direction.
Zachary A. Smith, #521163/4D-270
Crossroads Correctional Center
1115 E. Pence Road
Cameron, Missouri 64429
Zachary A. Smith was born on August 8, 1975, and raised in Kansas City, Missouri. He is currently married to the State of Missouri til death do them part (divorce pending). He has studied and practiced law for over twenty years, and has earned a paralegal degree, with distinction, from Blackstone Career Institute. He is not a convict, just a man who lost his way and got caught up in the system nor a criminal but committed crimes in his youth. In his leisure, he enjoys reading books, walking outside, and corresponding with family and friends.