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Lawmakers try to roll back some parole eligibility for people in prison for juvenile crimes prompting concerns about Cole County case

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (KMIZ)

A Cole County state senator said lawmakers may have pulled the rug from under a murder victim's family.

Sen. Mike Berskoetter (R-Jefferson City) has proposed a change to the state's new law on parole eligibility for people in prison for crimes committed as a juvenile. Bernskoetter's proposal would stop those convicted of second-degree murder from qualifying for a parole hearing after 15 years in prison. Lawmakers in 2021 passed the changes that only kept those convicted of first-degree murder from the earlier eligibility.

Bernskoetter said he was inspired to offer the changes because of the effect it had on Alyssa Bustamante's case. Bustamante is serving a life sentence for killing 9-year-old Elizabeth Olten in St. Martins in 2009 when she was 15 years old. Law enforcement said Bustamante killed the girl to experience the thrill of it and buried Olten in the woods. Bustamante pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of second-degree murder in 2012.

Under the current law, Bustamante would become eligible for parole in 2024, three years earlier than usual. Bernskoetter said concern from the Olten family and others prompted him to take action on the parole eligibility changes.

“I don't think they would have agreed to second-degree murder if they would have known she'd be out in 15 years," Bernskoetter said.

Supporters of the parole changes have argued that those in prison for crimes committed as juveniles deserve a chance to be heard for parole. The National Research Council says that people commit less crime as they age into their mid-20s, and the organization noted a sharp decline for those in their 30s and 40s.

Bobby Bostic believes people "age out" of crime. Bostic is set to be released from prison on parole in December after spending more than 20 years in prison for robbery. A judge in St. Louis sentenced him to 241 years in prison in 1995. Bostic is one of more than 200 people the Department of Corrections said had their parole eligibility date affected by the change in law.

“Most people (are) grateful for their second chance, because they're not who they was as that child," Bostic told ABC 17 News. "Like me, I knew I was a robber, but now that mentality is never in my mind. I'll be homeless before I rob somebody.”

Bobby Bostic talks about what he wants people to know about those coming out of prison after earning parole for crimes they committed as juveniles.

Rehabilitating young offenders

Bostic said cases like Bustamante's are not representative of everyone convicted of second-degree murder. He said that, should she receive a hearing, the parole board will pay particular attention to the wishes of the victim's family. Bostic said family rights and opinions play a major role in any parole board hearing.

Rep. Rudy Veit (R-Wardsville) said excluding those convicted of second-degree murder from earlier parole eligibility could take things too far. He said people could sometimes receive second-degree murder convictions for unwittingly taking part in a murder, such as helping the killer get away.

“It's probably a little more than we actually want to do based on one incident who may never get out on parole if they don't let her out," Veit said.

Veit and Bostic both said that young people often don't consider the long-term consequences of their actions, which might make lengthy prison sentences an unnecessary response.

“We got to be punished for it," Bostic said. "But to be overpunished or overincarcerated, it don't serve taxpayers no good, I mean it does them no good if we can change, right? If we're not a threat to society it doesn't help society to keep us here.”

Rep. Mark Sharp (D-Kansas City) proposed the changes in 2021 that allowed Bostic the chance at a parole hearing. He said his background as a teacher taught him that young people especially could be rehabilitated, and should have some recourse for parole if incarcerated.

Sharp said he learned about the Bustamante case after ABC 17 News asked him about it last year. He said he's supportive of Bernskoetter's idea, saying he did not oppose the changes for people like Bustamante.

“I never imagined something that bad could be pled down to a second degree," Sharp said. "And that's when I realized we got a problem.”

Parole eligibility does not guarantee a person an early release from their prison sentence. Someone seeking parole must meet with the board to talk about several topics, including their "problems and needs," "plans for rehabilitation" and why they should be paroled, according to a Division of Probation and Parole manual.

Veit said limiting the ability for more offenders to receive parole may also interfere with a victim's right to discuss the case.

"Some families may say, 'we've met the person and we believe they've found, seen God or found the light, and we want them to have the opportunity in life,'" Veit said. "This is another method of helping the families of victims have their input.”

Bernskoetter's bill, which was added to a larger bill dealing with crime, awaits action in the Senate.

Lucas Geisler

Lucas Geisler anchors the 5 p.m. show for ABC 17 News and reports on the latest news around mid-Missouri at 9 and 10 p.m.

Comments

1 Comment

  1. The reason we have parole boards is to decide who, and who should not be paroled. Why is legislation required to limit that purpose?

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