Legislative Column

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

The Missouri General Assembly returned to Jefferson City on July 27 for an extra legislative session called by the governor. The “extraordinary” session is focused on addressing violent crime, especially the alarming rate of homicides in our state’s metropolitan areas. The scope of the session is limited to six legislative solutions requested by the governor. The governor said he trusts lawmakers to agree on these proposals in the short time allowed for an extra session. He has said larger and more complex proposals should wait for a regular session of the Legislature, when there’s more time for debate and discussion.

Those of us who live in rural areas may not fully appreciate the crisis facing our urban cousins. Violent crime is rampant in Missouri’s largest cities. St. Louis consistently ranks near the top of any list of America’s most violent cities. Kansas City follows closely behind. Even Springfield makes the top 20. Each of Missouri’s three largest metropolitan areas are on pace to exceed unacceptable murder totals posted last year. The almost daily reports of death and injury in these cities is heart-breaking. Far too often, women and children are caught in the crossfire. Too many innocent lives are being lost. The situation continues to worsen, with little relief in sight. I believe something must be done now.

Law enforcement experts tell us violent crime is increasingly committed by juveniles who grow up fast and hard on city streets. Criminal gangs often enlist minors into their ranks, knowing the criminal justice system makes allowances for young offenders. It’s common for witnesses to refuse to testify for fear of retribution, a trend that contributes to the high number of unsolved crimes in urban areas. Chronically understaffed police departments struggle to keep up with persistent lawlessness in many communities. Senate Bill 1, introduced at the start of the extra session, includes proposals put forth by the governor to target these specific problems.

Currently, police officers and other public safety employees in the City of St. Louis must reside within the city limits during the first seven years of employment. I believe this strict residency requirement makes it hard to recruit and retain police officers, who would often rather live and raise their families outside the city. Senate Bill 1 would allow public safety employees to reside within an hour’s drive of their jobs, a change that should help the city address long-standing manpower shortages.

Two of the governor’s proposals relate to witnesses in criminal trials. One measure would establish a Pretrial Witness Protection Fund. Administered by the state treasurer, this fund would allow prosecutors to temporarily relocate witnesses and their families to ensure their safety and encourage cooperation. Another provision would ease “hearsay” rules and allow certain statements to be admissible in court when witnesses have been intimated from appearing in person.

To address the enlistment of juveniles in violent criminal activity, SB 1 would make it a crime to encourage children to engage in weapons offenses. The legislation also increases penalties for knowingly transferring a firearm to a minor without consent of the child’s guardian. Finally, the law would require courts to determine if children charged with armed criminal action or unlawful use of a weapon should be tried as adults. Not every child accused of these crimes would be tried as an adult, but the court would have to consider the possibility.

As I prepare this report, the Senate is still considering these proposals. Assuming SB 1, or portions of it, are approved in the Senate, the House of Representatives will also need to take up the proposals. That’s expected to happen in the coming days, as the two chambers of the Legislature return to Jefferson City separately, in order to reduce the risk of COVID-19 and avoid the unnecessary cost of one body sitting idle, while waiting for the other act.

I expect the General Assembly to act on these proposals. In the meantime, I believe police officers and prosecutors in Missouri’s largest cities are struggling to bring law and order to our streets. From my perspective, everyone agrees the proposals presented during this extra legislation session are just part of the solution. Many more ideas will be presented in the future. There will be a new class of legislators arriving in Jefferson City in January, as the 101st General Assembly is sworn in to office. They will surely continue the search for solutions to the violence that vexes our cities. They’ll need wisdom and guidance from voices all across our state as they take up this important work.

It is my great honor to represent the citizens of the 33rd Senatorial District. Although the Legislature has adjourned for 2020, I remain your senator throughout the year. If there’s anything that I can do to assist you, please feel free to contact my Capitol office at (573) 751-1882.