A bill passed by the Missouri House on Thursday would give inmates aged 65 and older who were sentenced to life behind bars a chance at parole.

Under Republican Rep. Tom Hannegan’s bill, older prisoners sentenced to at least 50 years in prison would get parole hearings after 30 years. Convicted sex offenders and people with previous dangerous felony convictions wouldn’t qualify.

According to information provided to legislative researchers by the Corrections Department, an estimated 18 prisoners would qualify for the program by the end of June. Another 24 would become eligible in the next 10 years.

The legislation, which passed the House 90-60, is part of a broader push to overhaul the state’s criminal justice system that’s gaining traction.

“This is the simplest way to show our citizens that we are serious about helping reduce the number of people in our prisons, bring down the fiscal note and the amount of money we are spending on them, and allow these people to get back to their lives and be productive citizens,” said Democratic Rep. Barbara Washington of Kansas City.

The measure passed the Republican-led House with bipartisan support, but there’s still skepticism. Critics questioned changing the sentencing guidelines that were law when those prisoners were first convicted.

GOP Rep. Lane Roberts, a former Department of Public Safety director and former Joplin police chief, asked colleagues on the House floor “to imagine that the person seated next to you is a victim or a family member of a victim” and guess how they would vote.

“To vote yes on this bill is to vote in opposition to the victims,” Roberts said. “So who’s important here? Respectfully, I’m asking this body to align themselves with the victims and vote according to the victims’ wishes.”

But almost a decade after his sister was raped and murdered, St. Louis Democratic Rep. Steve Butz voted in favor of the bill.

The legislation would not apply to the man convicted of killing Butz’ sister, Teresa Butz, and injuring her partner after breaking into their Seattle home in July 2009. But he cited his experience as a grieving family member and urged his Missouri colleagues to pass the legislation, saying it’s important to be merciful.

“Forgiveness does not come immediately,” he said. “But I can tell you as a family member, it is important and it is imperative for the healing of the victims.”

The legislation now heads to the state Senate for consideration.

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