Youth justice bills introduced in Maryland; Missouri mulls early release; Iowa and Kentucky consider expanding voting rights

This update is part of the weekly Political Report newsletter. Find more on our legislative round-up page.

A month after Governor Kim Reynolds proposed a constitutional amendment to restore the voting rights of people who complete a sentence for a felony conviction, the Des Moines Register released a poll this week that found that 64 percent of Iowans favor such a reform. But Kira Lerner reports in The Appeal that some lawmakers are demanding that the proposal include a requirement that people pay all restitution before regaining their voting rights. This would create a system where differences in financial ability affect whose rights are restored. Reynolds has the ability to act by executive order to re-enfranchise thousands of Iowans, as Democratic Governor Tom Vilsack did in 2005. Governor Terry Branstad, Reynolds’s Republican predecessor, rescinded Vilsack’s order, and Reynolds has chosen to keep it that way.
Kentucky’s harsh disenfranchisement statutes deprive more than one in four Black Kentuckians of the right to vote, according to the Sentencing Project. In December, the Political Report explored efforts to expand voting rights in the state, and a new effort just got off the ground: Senate Bill 238, filed last week by Senator Morgan McGarvey, would restore people’s voting rights once they complete their sentences for most felony convictions. The bill, which must be approved by lawmakers and then by voters, includes exceptions for certain crimes. It is backed, among other groups, by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group that may have sway on the GOP lawmakers who govern the state.
Lawmakers have also introduced bills to reform the process by which some people can petition to expunge low-level felonies and regain their rights. That requires a prohibitive $500 fee, one of the country’s highest, which connects differences in financial capacity with the ability to regain voting rights. House Bill 155 would expand the expungement process, and reduce the fee to $200; Senate Bill 215, also introduced by McGarvey, would reduce the fee to $20. Governor Matt Bevin, a Republican who is up for re-election this year, recently expressed his comfort with the status quo. “When I hear a person who has a brand new $500 tattoo who tells me they don’t have $500, it’s hard for me to believe it,” he said.
Children as young as 7 can face charges in the state’s juvenile justice system. Proposed legislation (House Bill 659) would restrict the circumstances under which children younger than 12 can be incarcerated. “Detention may not be continued beyond emergency detention for a child under the age of 12 years unless the child is alleged to have committed an act that, if committed by an adult, would be a crime of violence,” says the bill. This is just one of a range of bills introduced in the legislature this year to reform the juvenile justice system; House Bill 418, for instance, seeks to make the transfer of minors into adult court more difficult.
Two bills expanding early release are moving forward in the House, reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The first (House Bill 113) would authorize judges to order the release of individuals after a shorter period of time than their sentence mandates. The bill would not apply to higher categories of offenses. HB 113 is supported by Speaker Elijah Haahr and by the Missouri Department of Corrections, which says it would affect hundreds of incarcerated individuals, but not by the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. Greene County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Patterson, the association’s president-elect, said increasing judicial discretion would make for uneven sentencing. The second bill (House Bill 352) would grant  parole hearings to individuals who are serving lifetime sentences, are older than 65, and have served at least 30 years. The bill would apply only to individuals who have been convicted of a single felony.