Nearly everyone in the Capitol thinks reforming alternative treatment court programs in Missouri is a good idea, including the governor. Yet a treatment court bill was still killed.

So how does something that was popular enough to pass nearly unanimously die with the stroke of a pen?

It turns out that the lawmakers broke the law.

This week, they will gather for a special legislative session and reconsider a bill on drug treatment courts Gov. Mike Parson vetoed earlier.

The bill passed the House 133-6. Parson vetoed it on July 13, ruling it was unconstitutional for several reasons, many related to lawmakers adding multiple issues to the bill that were not directly related to drug courts or alternative sentencing.

The final version of the bill contained at least 13 different subjects, according to the veto letter.

These subjects include a section that authorized some people to enter property they don’t own if they think it’s abandoned or to secure the property, remove trash, landscape or remove graffiti. It also tackled judges’ retirement benefits and the disciplining of parole officers.

“It is unfortunate that the provisions of this bill relating to treatment courts will not move forward as a result of the aforementioned issues,” the letter read. “Treatment courts serve a valuable purpose for both our judicial and corrections systems.”

The original focus of the bill was on court-supervised treatment programs, including drug court treatment programs for people who need substance abuse treatment and are felony offenders. They give judges the option to give alternative sentencing to avoid jail time.

People who qualify include first-time nonviolent offenders, probationers and offenders who are leaving the Department of Corrections and returning to their communities, according to the Missouri courts website.

Treatment includes drug testing and counseling. Sponsor of the bill Rep. Kevin Austin, R-Greene, said it’s a team approach to treatment involving mental health, drug and alcohol counselors, as well as probation officers, defense attorneys, public defenders, prosecutors and members of law enforcement.

The bill focused on reforming the current treatment court system and consolidating drug courts across the state.

It would set up best practices for treatment courts, provide education for judges and other people dealing with the courts and create the option for people to transfer to counties with courts that their counties don’t have.

The bill would also put a pause on adults losing Medicaid coverage if they lose custody of their children due to their addiction. Those adults need that health care for treatment, Austin said. It would allow them to reapply right away to see if they would otherwise qualify.

“Things could always get better, so that’s what this is about,” Austin said.

The governor has expressed his support for treatment courts, despite his veto of the original bill.

“I am a strong supporter of alternative sentencing — focusing on rehabbing an individual’s life from crime and drugs, helping to stop a lifelong habit and overcoming substance abuse,” Parson said in a press conference last week.

“I look forward to working hand in hand with the legislature to ensure we get this finished in special session,” he said.

Austin said he understands why the governor vetoed the bill originally: “I knew that the Senate had overloaded this bill and that we were on very touchy constitutional grounds as far as violating the one-subject rule of the Constitution. I was not offended by any means, I understood (the governor’s office’s) position and respected their decision.”

Austin will file the original bill he proposed, without the added amendments, this week, he said. Because of how popular the bill was, he expects it to pass in the special session.

Drug addicts affect not only themselves but the people around them as well, Austin said.

“A drug addict does not live in a vacuum,” he said. “If he has family, and a lot of them do, he may be estranged from them, but he still affects them. He has friends, neighbors — he affects them. He has people that he steals from — that affects them.”

Austin also said drug addiction affects everyone because turning someone who is in jail and a tax burden into someone who is a taxpayer can save other taxpayers a lot of money.

“Just as the governor himself said, we don’t need to build any more prisons in the state of Missouri,” he said. “We need to find alternative sentencing, and we need to get these people rehabilitated and back in the workforce, and drug courts have been a champion for that.”

Supervising editor is Mark Horvit, horvitm@missouri.edu.

  • State government reporter and graduate journalism student at the University of Missouri. Graduated with a BA in journalism from The University of Alabama in 2018.

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