Guest Commentary

We’ll reform Missouri’s criminal justice system if we quit fighting and work together

Matthew Charles, center, gestures as President Donald Trump acknowledges him during the 2019 State of the Union address. He will join Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas for a Nov. 12 event about criminal justice reform.
Matthew Charles, center, gestures as President Donald Trump acknowledges him during the 2019 State of the Union address. He will join Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas for a Nov. 12 event about criminal justice reform. The Associated Press

Is it just me, or is everyone yelling at each other?

Whether it’s on the news or on social media, it seems as if everyone — pundits, politicians and even your next-door neighbor — is blasting, mocking or having heated arguments with someone else. The same thing goes on at the highest levels of power in our country.

Meanwhile, our nation’s problems remain unsolved and millions of Americans continue to face obstacles that prevent them from achieving their full potential.

At Americans for Prosperity, we decided to go in a different direction. Our approach follows the model set by Frederick Douglass when he said, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.” That’s the philosophy that guides our efforts on reforming the criminal justice system.

We believe in laws that deter crime, keep all Americans safe and make it possible for those who have paid their debt to society to become productive members once again. For decades, our system has been failing to do that. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws have led to overly crowded prisons and disproportionately long sentences.

After people complete their time in prison, they often face enormous challenges reintegrating into society: bleak job prospects, unresolved mental health problems, drug addiction and broken relationships with their families and communities.

We ask those coming out of imprisonment to be contributing members of society while making it much too difficult for them to succeed. The result is a system in which the formerly incarcerated are denied a second chance and too often return to a life of crime. Our communities end up less safe, and our economy loses tens of billions of dollars in lost productivity.

This is a particular problem in Missouri, which has the seventh highest incarceration rate in the country, a prison system that cost us $300 million a year by 2016, and a 47.4% recidivism rate (using 2018 data on five-year reincarceration rates).

A better way forward would be to make punishments proportionate to the crimes committed, and for those incarcerated to have immediate access to rehabilitation services aimed at reducing recidivism.

With Douglass’ dictum in mind, we will be working with Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, former federal prisoner and President Donald Trump’s State of the Union guest Matthew Charles and many others to spread the word and push for criminal justice reform.

Our approach is yielding results in our state. In February, the Missouri House of Representatives passed HB 113, which would provide judges greater discretion in sentencing individuals for minor, nonviolent offenses. Unfortunately, the Missouri Senate didn’t consider the measure. But in July, the state legislature passed and Gov. Mike Parson signed into law HB 192, which ended several draconian punishments that impose burdens on Missourians, such as arrest for non-payment of fines and fees and arbitrary mandatory prison terms for nonviolent and non-sexual crimes.

To continue this momentum, we are hosting a series of events this month, starting with one featuring Lucas and Charles on Nov. 12 in the Truman Forum Auditorium at the Kansas City Public Library’s Plaza Branch. Subsequent events featuring Charles will occur in Springfield and St. Louis, and more could follow.

We’ll hear stories about what can happen when we set aside our differences and work for real reform. We invite you to reject division and join us for these events. Be part of the solution.

Jeremy Cady is state director of Americans for Prosperity-Missouri, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that works for lower taxes, less government regulation and economic prosperity.

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