JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri lawmakers want the governor to appoint a special prosecutor to certain parts of the state to help reduce crime.
Originally, the bill heard in a House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee Thursday targeted the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office. During the hearing, members discussed potential changes to determine when the governor should be allowed to appoint a special prosecutor.
It’s a plan by Rep. Lane Roberts, R-Joplin, to address crime. The proposal is to allow special prosecutors to be appointed by the governor for every 35 homicide cases per 100,000 people.
“If you talk to people outside the State of Missouri, Missouri is dangerous,” Roberts told the committee.
Roberts said some bipartisan lawmakers spoke with the St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner via conference call last year to talk about the thousands of unprosecuted cases in the City of St. Louis.
“We discussed how we could go about helping the Circuit Attorney’s Office,” Roberts said. “Unfortunately, the only request that she made was for money. Money is not going to do the trick.”
According to a report from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, the suspects in 4,280 misdemeanor and felony cases dating back to 2020 have gone free and are awaiting a decision from the Circuit Attorney on whether to file criminal charges.
The Circuit Attorney’s Office disputes the number, but initially did not provide a specific figure. Staff provided an update later Wednesday night, saying that the number of cases was no more than 3,800 and included cases where the alleged offenders were not considered violent or dangerous, the arresting police officer no longer worked for the St. Louis Police Department, and cases lacking evidence (such cases result in charges less than 20% of the time).
Over the last five years, Roberts told the committee 1,000 people have died in St. Louis alone.
“There are roughly 200 Missourians a year dying in St. Louis,” Roberts said. “Now, I don’t have to live in St. Louis to care about that. Public safety to me is protecting the public and largely that’s preventative.”
Under House Bill 301, the special prosecutor would receive “exclusive” jurisdiction to prosecute first- and second-degree murders, first- and second-degree assaults, first- and second-degree robberies, and vehicle hijacking. The special prosecutor would be able to hire up to 15 assistant special prosecuting attorneys and up to 15 staff members.
“We are deeply concerned that this bill overrides the will of voters and may strip the criminal justice system of prosecutorial independence,” Locke Thompson with the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and Cole County Prosecutor said. “Any time we’re walking in and appointing a special prosecutor or even a special legislator for that matter, we’re talking about undermining the voters who elected that person to office.”
The other side of the aisle isn’t completely sold on the plan either.
“I think you put prosecutors in a very difficult situation when the gun laws are favoring gun owners and criminals,” Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence said. “Do I think there should be possible more prosecutions and things like that, I think we should look at it, but at the same time, if you’re not changing the way they can proceed, their hands are tied.”
The Missouri Chamber of Commerce testified to the committee, saying with Missouri in the top 10 in the nation for violent crime, it’s an issue for economic competitiveness.
“From the business community’s perspective, crime is indeed an economic issue,” Kara Corches with the Chamber said. “Other issues that keep business leaders up at night, public safety is a top concern and I think that says a whole lot. This isn’t just a St. Louis or Kansas City issue. This is a rural issue; this is an urban issue, and this is a suburban issue.”
The new St. Louis Police Chief, Robert Tracy was at the Missouri Capitol Wednesday to testify against the state having control over the police department. He told lawmakers he had yet to meet with Gardner but would be sitting down with her soon.
“I think it’s only fair that I sit down with her to at least have a conversation before commenting about that’s happening,” Tracy said. “What she wants to do or not do.”
Besides more prosecution, some say crime is also due to a lack of resources.
“Looking at what government services do folks have access to, how much are they earning in their paycheck, are they able to feed their children and their families, that absolutely has to be part of the conversation,” Rep. Ian Mackey, D- St. Louis, said. “We have to think about the economic drivers of crime.”
In a statement Thursday afternoon, St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office said the bill will not improve violent crime.
“HB301 is a political gesture based entirely on unfounded premises. The notion that anything presented in the bill will improve our violent crime situation is ridiculous. It defies logic to think the creation of a duplicative department that’s totally devoid of the relationships, institutional knowledge, criminal justice partnerships, and experience required to prosecute these complex cases would do anything to curb crime.
Addressing the causes of violent crime is an urgent priority, and should be a focus for our entire region. The Circuit Attorney’s Office welcomes the opportunity to work with legislators with legitimate proposals to address it.”
Other pieces of this crime package include criminalizing those under 17 if found carrying a firearm in public unsupervised and helping those being released from prison to get back on their feet by offering them photo identification card and Medicaid services for six months after their release.
Rep Kimberly-Ann Collins, D-St. Louis, said the there are enough programs that help those just being released to find insurance. It’s housing they need help with.
“If an offender is released, we have to offer them more than just health insurance,” Collins said. “There are different barriers to house, there’s barriers that are in place right now for employment. Stable housing is how we can begin to reduce recidivism when we have ex-offenders coming out to re-enter society.”
The bill has not been voted out of committee yet. Another public hearing on the legislation has been set for Monday at noon.