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As Parson’s crime session comes to a close, here’s what you need to know

Austin Huguelet
Springfield News-Leader

Back in mid-July, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson stood in the Capitol rotunda and called legislators back to Jefferson City to address a troubling rise in violent crime in the state’s major cities.

Flanked by several police chiefs, Parson said leaders could no longer “let violent criminals destroy our state and get away with it” and urged lawmakers to enact a series of changes intended to make it easier to catch and prosecute offenders.

Two months later, lawmakers have largely done what he's asked. Two bills are already on Parson’s desk, and the House is set to make final decisions on three more this week.

But the session hasn’t been without controversy. The intervening weeks have brought debate over whether Parson’s plan will really work and accusations from Democrats that Parson is using the session to boost his campaign for a full term in the Governor’s Mansion this fall.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson announces his run for governor at a launch event at Bolivar High School in Bolivar, Mo., on Sept.  8, 2019.

Parson, in turn, has maintained that he’s focused on putting an end to violent crime reaching record highs this summer, nothing more and nothing less.

Here’s what you need to know to cut through the noise.

What's the plan?

The governor’s plan, simply put, is a bid to make it easier for police officers and sheriff’s deputies to investigate crimes, especially those related to guns, and then give prosecutors more ways to charge suspects and put them behind bars.

At this point, the plan has been divided among six different bills, which allow for easy categorization.

House Bill 66 is the one most people like: it effectively sets up a new bank account to pay for witness protection across Missouri.

The state technically already has such a program, but it’s poorly funded, and police chiefs like Springfield’s Paul Williams say the rules make it virtually useless to officers right now. The new account is supposed to offer easier access and more money to help law enforcement secure crime-solving tips.

House Bill 46 goes along similar lines, aiming to provide more officers for St. Louis by eliminating a city rule requiring them to live in the city for their first seven years on the force.

Mayor Lyda Krewson and department officials are pleading for the change, saying they’re combating a record year for homicides while short about 150 officers. They say the “residency rule” is the No. 1 deal-breaker for would-be hires.

House Bill 11 and House Bill 16 are a little more technical, but broadly speaking, they create new reasons to arrest and charge adults who give guns to kids to avoid getting caught with them themselves and/or encourage, help or force kids to commit gun crimes on their own.

Republicans and some police supporters have said that right now, adults doing those things aren’t being held accountable.

House Bill 2 does two things. One part does the uncontroversial work of taking a long-established legal principle and writes it into state statute, allowing the testimony of a witness to be admitted into a court remotely if a defendant takes action that keeps them from testifying in person.

The other part does something highly controversial: It allows the state Attorney General to commandeer St. Louis murder cases from the local circuit attorney. Parson and fellow Republican Attorney General Eric Schmitt say this is necessary because Democratic Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner is not prosecuting enough violent crime.

Gardner, a Black woman elected on a platform of reforming the criminal justice system, has predictably disagreed and contended that decisions to refuse charges are more about “lack of evidence and lack of community trust with law enforcement.”

There was also another bill that would require judges to hold hearings on whether or not a juvenile charged with a gun crime should be charged as an adult, but it’s presumed dead now.

Will these policies actually help?

Parson and supportive Republicans seem to think so.

"We truly believe that these are tools that could be used in many of the situations we're seeing today,” Parson said in a speech to the Governor’s Economic Development Conference last month.

Democrats, if they're feeling charitable, will tell you the changes are mostly useless.

Experts who study criminal justice, on the other hand, have told the News-Leader a little bit of both in multiple interviews since December, when many of the ideas first surfaced.

The best hopes appear to be the witness protection and residency rule ideas, though experts note that any improvement in crime rates takes time and depends on other factors like economic and educational opportunities in an area.

When the News-Leader asked criminologists Rick Rosenfeld of University of Missouri-St. Louis and Gary Kleck of Florida State University about the witness protection idea in December, they saw little problem with it.

Rosenfeld said having more St. Louis police officers could also help if they’re deployed in large numbers to “hot spots” where a lot of violent crime happens.

But getting that deployment right is critical.

Brett Garland, a criminologist at Missouri State University, said this week that getting it wrong could make things worse.

“Simply increasing police presence and activity can sometimes backfire by generating feelings of being 'over-policed' in a targeted community that then can lead to frustration and resentment and ultimately a possible de-legitimization effect,” he said.

Rosenfeld said this week police reform efforts are critical to getting that right.

Making it easier to hold police accountable for mistakes and encouraging officers to de-escalate potentially violent situations would boost their standing in key communities and encourage cooperation, he said.

Parson, for his part, has said that can wait until the regular session in January, frustrating lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Experts were less encouraged by the other bills.

Republicans and some police groups said the technical changes targeting people who give kids guns would help close a kind of loophole in the law.

But Darrell Moore, the executive director of the state prosecutors’ association, said those people could likely already be charged under existing law.

The Department of Corrections estimated the bills would lead to six more prisoners and 21 more people on probation or parole in 10 years.

Moore pointed out that the bills would increase penalties on offenders, but threatening people with slightly longer prison sentences is generally unhelpful in deterring crime because criminals either don’t hear the threat or don’t think they’ll get caught.

The key, criminologists say, is increasing the level of certainty someone will be punished.

Rosenfeld, the UMSL criminologist, said that could come into play with the idea of bringing the attorney general’s office into St. Louis.

“If the prosecution rate for violent offenses were to increase substantially,” he wrote in an email, “that could add to the certainty of punishment and, over time, result in crime reductions.”

But he said that also depends on St. Louis police clearing cases for them to charge, which additional prosecutors wouldn't have much to do with.

How much of this has to do with politics?

Good question. It is an election year with money pouring into the governor’s race from national Republicans and Democrats.

Polls have suggested Parson, a Republican, may or may not be in a tight race with Democratic State Auditor Nicole Galloway to hang onto his seat this fall, and Democrats say the special session is about distracting from a coronavirus response with mixed reviews.

“When Gov. Mike Parson first called this special legislative session, it was clear that the purpose was not to address violent crime, but to change the subject from his disastrous leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic,” House Minority Leader Crystal Quade of Springfield said last month.

Parson also raised questions when he called on legislators to allow the attorney general to intervene in St. Louis multiple weeks into the special session.

Gardner, the St. Louis circuit attorney, described the move as a type of political maneuver “designed to usurp the will of the people.”

St. Louis media noted the addition followed Gardner’s decision to charge a St. Louis couple with felonies for pointing guns at protesters marching past their home. Parson had gone on Fox News shortly after charges were filed to say he would “without a doubt” pardon the couple.

Parson, for his part, said in August that expanding the call was about helping Gardner, not attacking her.

And Kelli Jones, the governor’s spokeswoman, said this past week that anyone questioning the governor’s effort to address violent crime is ignoring reality.

“Addressing record levels of homicides in this state and in St. Louis is NOT political, and for anyone to insinuate this doesn’t clearly understand what is happening in our cities,” Jones wrote in an email. “Violent crime has plagued our state long before COVID-19, and we have seen it escalate even more in recent months, specifically in our big cities.”

The truth may be a little more complicated.

Dan Ponder, a political scientist at Drury University, said it’s entirely believable that Parson would call a special session to address violent crime given the troubling numbers in St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield this year.

But he also said that doesn’t mean criminal justice isn't a good issue for Parson, a former Polk County sheriff. 

Parson’s allied political action committee has appeared to agree, putting out multiple ads touting his support for and from law enforcement since he announced the special session and attacking Galloway as “soft on crime.”

Ponder also noted that in the time since the announcement, the state’s virus numbers have been getting harder to boast about.

Top state officials have pointed out that Missouri’s cases and deaths per resident compare favorably with most other states so far in the crisis, but cases have been trending up here in the past couple of months and Parson has taken heat over his refusal to require masks statewide.

Since July 1, Missouri’s infection rate has ranked 17th-highest among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, and the 11th highest since Aug. 1.

“So that’s probably pretty good politics to focus on crime,” Ponder said, “Like, ‘let me run on something that’s my strength.’”

What’s next?

The Missouri House is scheduled to gavel back into special session at 2 p.m. Wednesday.

The bills making the technical changes related to guns in the hands of children and the one related to the Attorney General taking over St. Louis murder cases could pass.

The bills concerning witness protection and the St. Louis “residency rule” passed Sept. 2 and await a final decision from the governor.

Debate can be livestreamed from the House website at www.house.mo.gov/MediaCenter.aspx?selected=VideoFeeds.

Austin Huguelet is the News-Leader's politics reporter. Got something he should know? Have a question? Call him at 417-403-8096 or email him at ahuguelet@news-leader.com. You can also support local journalism at News-Leader.com/subscribe.