The Kansas City Star, Sept. 4

Riots, lockdowns and disease: Are Missouri prison inmates living in inhumane conditions?

A Missouri statute allows members of the General Assembly to visit state-run prisons at any time. The law overrides a directive issued by Missouri Department of Corrections Director Anne Precythe to Ronda Pash, warden at Crossroads Correctional Center, to deny entry to the prison.

But the recent refusal to allow state Rep. Brandon Ellington, a Kansas City Democrat, to check on prisoners housed at the correctional facility in Cameron could be the least of the state's concerns if a class-action lawsuit determines prison officials are subjecting inmates to inhumane conditions.

Inmates' complaints about health and sanitary conditions, food service, reduced visitation times, recreation time out of cells and other concerns have largely been ignored.

A riot broke out in May at Crossroads. The prison has been on some level of lockdown since.

Although prison officials say many services are slowly returning to Crossroads, inmates insist in dozens of letters to Ellington that basic necessities remain unavailable.

"If people aren't concerned about inmates, they should at least be concerned about their tax dollars," Ellington said.

Henry Service and Arimeta Dupree, two Kansas City attorneys, plan to file a class-action lawsuit on behalf of inmates in Missouri claiming inhumane treatment and constitutional violations, among other things.

If the state won't allow access to prisons, then maybe a lawsuit will get their attention, Service said.

"We, as a society, have to decide what we want to be," he said.

Dupree said the U.S. and Missouri constitutions, as well as state statutes protect inmates from being subjected to such treatment.

"Prisoners or not, this is a human rights issue," she said.

Dupree makes a valid point. It's illegal to deprive inmates of nutritious meals and expose them to diseases such as MRSA, a dangerous bacterial infection, as some prisoners have claimed.

"We do not lock people up in disease-ridden environments," Service said.

Ellington was denied entry last week to the prison to meet with inmates about their concerns, which also include a lack of access to the prison's law library.

He filed a formal complaint with the governor's officer over the denial, telling The Star that the department's reasoning for preventing the visit was suspect.

"Now, not only do I have concerns about taxpayer dollars . . . (and) about the people who are confined to this facility, I now have concerns about the warden breaking state statute and state law," Ellington said.

Inmates are human beings. They deserve basic protections. As Ellington points out, not everyone in a correctional facility is a lifelong criminal. And all prisoners have rights.

Taxpayers in Missouri need to know if prison officials are subjecting inmates to cruel and unusual punishment. More transparency and accountability are the only way to reassure the public that state officials are upholding the law.

That starts with Precythe, Pash and other wardens across the state. They simply cannot be in charge of correctional facilities if they don't follow the law.

_______

The Jefferson City News-Tribune, Sept. 2

Keep faith in the Johnson Amendment

We respectfully disagree with Attorney General Josh Hawley's opposition to the Johnson Amendment, a federal tax code ban on religious and other nonprofit organizations endorsing/opposing political candidates.

Hawley is the Republican nominee hoping to unseat Democratic incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill in the November election. McCaskill opposes repeal of the Johnson Amendment.

Under the amendment, tax-exempt entities such as churches and charities cannot directly or indirectly support or oppose political candidates. This means ministers can't endorse/oppose candidates during church without risking fines and loss of their tax-exempt status.

In an Associated Press story we published Wednesday, Hawley said: "The government shouldn't be telling pastors what they can and can't say from their pulpit.

"In the history of this nation, there has been no greater force for good than the preaching of pastors and the speech of religious believers."

He said Democrats, including his opponent, Sen. Claire McCaskill, "need to stop trying to muzzle people of faith."

The Johnson Amendment was enacted in 1954 by a Republican president and a Republican Congress, after being added to a bill about the Internal Revenue Service by future president and then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texas Democrat.

It wasn't debated and created an important separation of church and state, and the need for it hasn't diminished over the years.

Repeal of the Johnson Amendment would allow political organizations/donors to use churches as dark money pipelines, because they, as 501(c)(3) organizations, don't have to disclose their donors.

The anti-Johnson Amendment sentiment caters to some religious groups, particularly evangelical Christians, who oppose the amendment, saying it limits their free speech.

It doesn't limit their speech. What it says is if you play politics, you can't be exempt from taxes. You can't have it both ways.

Many religious leaders recognize having it both ways would not be in their best interest, and that the Johnson Amendment actually protects them. Without it, religious organizations would be subject to political influence, which would distract — even undermine — their core mission. If churches are allowed to become intertwined with politics, their followers could lose faith in them.

Repealing the Johnson Amendment would be bad for politics, bad for churches and bad for America.

____

The St. Joseph News-Tribune, Aug. 30

Boost STEM, drug courts

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has chosen well in identifying two issues — STEM education and drug treatment courts — as deserving of being resurrected during a special session next month.

The governor is transparent in his push to stress a new, more cooperative working relationship with the General Assembly following the resignation of former Gov. Eric Greitens. The two proposals he is promoting for fresh consideration were vetoed by Parson earlier due to "problematic language" that was added during the spring legislative session, but both had strong bipartisan support.

We have written previously about Missouri Chief Justice Zel Fischer's legislative agenda for the state's criminal justice system. Fischer championed the proposed expansion of drug courts — specialized courts that offer a path to recovery for those facing felony charges related to their addictions.

Participants get access to addiction services, but also are subject to intense court supervision and frequent drug-testing.

Thousands of people have successfully completed the programs, had their charges dropped and been given a second chance to lead productive lives. But Fischer noted last winter that residents of 15 counties in the state had no access to any kind of treatment court. Further, state funding cuts had reduced drug court participation by 23 percent.

The proposal in the special session, Sept. 10 to 14, was hailed by Judge Alan Blankenship, president of the Missouri Association of Treatment Court Professionals: "Treatment courts are the most successful intervention in our nation's history for holding accountable people living with substance use and mental health disorders, and leading them out of the justice system into lives of recovery and stability."

The other proposal for the special session would require the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to establish an online program to educate students about STEM careers — professions that require expertise in science, technology, engineering or math.

"With tens of thousands of unfilled tech jobs in Missouri, it is more important than ever to make STEM career pathways visible to young people," notes Jeff Mazur, executive director of LaunchCode, which provides free, accessible tech training to Missourians.

A previous version of the legislation was rejected by Parson after he said bidding criteria for an online program that was spelled out in the bill appeared tailored for one company.