State lawmakers who represent the Jefferson City area agree the proposals called for by Missouri Gov. Mike Parson for a special legislative session starting Monday are a step in the right direction when it comes to addressing violent crime — though the proposals may not be enough by themselves.
"We have to at least try and see what we can do to curb all the violence," state Rep. Dave Griffith, R-Jefferson City, said.
Parson issued a proclamation July 15 calling for the session. He cited a surge this year in violent crime he said is a problem for all of Missouri, but particularly in Missouri's two largest cities — where Kansas City has seen a 35 percent increase in homicides compared to last year, and St. Louis has had a more than 31 percent increase.
The governor's proclamation calling the special session states Missouri "is on track to have its deadliest year on record, having already experienced more homicides in the first half of 2020 than the entire year of 2019."
Parson is calling on lawmakers to:
- Eliminate and prohibit the requirement for St. Louis law enforcement officers to have to live in the city, though an officer would still be required to live within an hour's response time of the city.
Currently, St. Louis law enforcement officers have to live within the city for seven years before being allowed to move to somewhere else within an hour's response time of the city.
- Require courts to determine if a juvenile should be tried as an adult for unlawful use of a weapon and armed criminal action charges.
Courts may currently choose to have such a hearing if a child 12-17 years old has been charged with such a felony, but courts are not required to — unlike with other felonies including first or second-degree murder, first-degree assault or first-degree robbery.
- Allow certain statements by witnesses to be admissible in court that would otherwise not be allowed under current law.
An example of what that could mean might be allowing witness testimony that would otherwise be excluded in a criminal case, if a court finds through a pre-trial hearing without the jury present that a defendant was involved with trying to prevent the witness from testifying, according to the summary of a Missouri House of Representatives bill on the topic that was introduced last session — HB 2195, sponsored by state Rep. Dean Plocher, R-St. Louis.
- Create a Pre-trial Witness Protection Fund.
Bills filed last session suggest the fund's money — to be appropriated by the General Assembly and disbursed by the Missouri Department of Public Safety — would be used by law enforcement to providing security for witnesses, potential witnesses and their families in criminal cases and investigations.
When law enforcement agencies would apply for the funding, they would have to provide a statement on the conditions that would qualify a person for protection, the exact methods to be used to provide protection, and a projection of costs over a specific time period.
- Criminalize knowingly encouraging, aiding or causing a child less than 17 years old to engage in a weapons offense.
The crime would fit under the definition of endangering the welfare of a child.
- Increase the penalty for a person who knowingly sells or delivers a firearm to a child without the consent of the child's parent or guardian.
Parson is seeking to change what would be a class A misdemeanor into a class E felony.
All of those measures were proposed in one form or another by lawmakers in the Missouri House, Senate or both during the spring legislative session, but even of the few bills that got a committee hearing before the end of a session truncated by the COVID-19 pandemic, most did not have any further substantive action on them.
One of the residency bills — HB 1604, sponsored by state Rep. Ron Hicks, R-Dardenne Prairie — did get a vote on the House floor, where it passed 105-41 on March 9.
State Rep. Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, said Parson's proposals for special session are not enough to address the state's surge in crime, but he said they're a step in the right direction.
"Certainly, we need more witness protection, and it is time we address these issues and try to do something," Veit added.
He said witness intimidation, especially by gangs, has been a problem for years, and there are gangs in Mid-Missouri, too.
Griffith said while Jefferson City doesn't have the same degree of issues with violent crime that Kansas City or St. Louis have, "we have shootings here; we have violence here," and the more the issues are discussed, the better.
HB 2207 — sponsored by state Rep. Jonathan Patterson, R-Lees Summit — was one of the witness protection fund bills last session, and it had a hearing by the House Judiciary committee Feb. 25.
There was no opposition to the bill, and supporters included the mayors of Kansas City and Springfield; the state's Public Safety Department; the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys; and law enforcement officers from Columbia, St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield.
The bill's fiscal note calculated the witness protection fund would cost the state $1 million or more in general revenue each year — up to $1.075 million a year by the 2023 fiscal year.
"I think it's going to be a challenge for us to find the money," Griffith said, though he added the money needs to be found.
The pandemic has slashed the state's budget in addition to the availability of lawmakers last spring — with $448 million of budget restrictions enacted for the current fiscal year, including for K-12 and college education, cuts to the state workforce's planned pay raise and some filled positions, and to a wide variety of other state offices and programs.
"I'm concerned that we're creating a new program," given the budget situation, state Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, said.
While Bernskoetter said the cost of the special session is not a huge amount, it is still extra and beyond what the House and Senate would normally spend.
He also supports Parson's proposals, though, and said there's broad support for the proposals among the Legislature's Republican majority.
Bernskoetter also said he would not be opposed to expanding the proposed change in residency requirements for St. Louis law enforcement to Kansas City.
The city of Kansas City and the Kansas City Fraternal Order of Police testified in committee they supported Hicks' residency bill as written, but they added they would oppose the bill if the lifting of residency requirements was extended to the entire state, and specifically Kansas City — because Kansas City covers a much wider geographical area than St. Louis.
Support for the bill included the mayor of St. Louis, the Missouri attorney general, the St. Louis Police Officers Association, the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police and St. Louis' public safety Director Jimmie Edwards.
Proponents' testimony was summarized by a House document as the understaffed St. Louis Police Department is "having a difficult time recruiting and retaining good police officers, and there are people who reside outside the city who would really like to work for the department but do not want to uproot their lives," their children's lives, and do not want to risk "a likelihood of increased threats to those officers' and their families' safety if they encounter parolees who the officers were instrumental in helping to convict."
The testimony in opposition was from Arnie C. Dienoff, an advocate and legal consultant who's also a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor.
The oppositional testimony was summarized as: "Those who oppose the bill say they believe in community and they believe that, if you are going to get a salary and a pension from the police department, you should live in the city."
Edwards, St. Louis' public safety director, also testified in support of SB 824, sponsored by state Sen. Wayne Wallingford, R-Cape Girardeau — one of the bills on juvenile certification-as-adult hearings filed last session.
Edwards hoped the bill would help reduce recidivism related to the use of weapons and give courts an opportunity to get involved in a child's life and offer rehabilitation options before it's too late.
He said he does not believe the bill would disproportionately affect poor youth or youth of color, adding only a "nominal" number of minors would be certified as adult offenders if the bill had been passed.
Supporters of the bill including the city of Springfield, Department of Public Safety, and associations representing Missouri's prosecutors and sheriffs supported the bill.
ACLU Missouri legislative associate Mo Del Villar and Empower Missouri Executive Director Jeanette Mott Oxford testified against the bill — speaking against vagueness in definitions related to armed criminal action, mandatory minimums that increase mass incarceration, and youth being more likely to be assaulted or die by suicide in adult correctional facilities.
In terms of Parson's vision for success, should his proposals pass in special session, he said after his announcement of special session: "All I want to do is give (law enforcement) every possible tool I can give them from the state level to do their jobs."
State Sen. Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane, did not respond to a request for comment for this story.