Plan to make drunken drivers in Missouri pay little one help advances | Legislation and order

By Grace Zokovitch St. Louis Post-Dispatch

JEFFERSON CITY — A grandmother’s push to secure financial support for children orphaned by drunken drivers was advanced by state representatives Wednesday.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike Henderson, R-Bonne Terre, creates Bentley’s Law, named for a Missouri child whose parents were killed in a Jefferson County accident caused by an intoxicated driver. The House gave the measure first-round approval Wednesday morning.

The proposal stems from the efforts of Bentley’s grandmother, Cecilia Williams, who lost a grandson, her son and his fiancée last April and is now raising their two surviving children.

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“She came to me with this bill, trying to figure out how to deal with this situation where kids are made orphans by drunk driving and irresponsibility of other people,” Henderson said. “And so Bentley’s Law to me is trying to stand up for these people and take care of these children.”

The bill mandates drunken drivers who kill one or both of a child’s parents pay child maintenance. The driver would have up to one year after release from incarceration to begin payments, and the child would receive payments up to age 18 or 21 if they enroll in secondary education.

Lawmakers broadly praised the bill’s intent, but expressed several concerns about how the law would play out. The bill broadly defines the amount of child maintenance and institutes the mandate regardless of the driver’s financial means, details which drew concern.

“I understand the bill maker’s intent, and my heart goes out to anyone that’s in this situation,” said Rep. Marlon Anderson, D-St. Louis. “However, there are already civil remedies in the event this happens — you have tort reform, you have tort insurance the company will pay for, you have Social Security and a pension.”

Lawmakers expressed the intent to continue working through the proposal.

“I do appreciate that the gentleman is talking about trying to incorporate some kind of restorative justice into our criminal justice system,” said Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, who said he would also not vote for the bill for logistical reasons. “I think that’s a conversation we should have more often, of when we can put in place consequences for a crime that try to address the harm that was caused.”

Similar measures have been proposed in 12 other states this year and received unanimous approval in the Tennessee House and Senate.

The legislation is House Bill 1954.

Grace Zokovitch

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