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Government, Politics & Issues

Missouri Legislators Will Consider Special Session Violent Crime Bills Individually

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner takes the oath of office at the Old Courthouse in January 2017.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Kim Gardner, the first Black woman to be elected circuit attorney in St. Louis, said Parson's call "demolishes any notion of a free and independent judicial system."

The Missouri House announced Tuesday it is breaking up Gov. Mike Parson’s tough-on-crime package of special session legislation into one-subject bills.

House Speaker Elijah Haahr said the House is breaking up the package into single subjects to “protect the integrity of the lawmaking process.”

This comes after Parson announced Monday an addition to the package that would allow the attorney general to prosecute crimes in St. Louis.

The House had been expected to wrap up Wednesday but now won’t take up the individual bills until Aug. 24.

Our original story from Aug. 10

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson on Monday called for legislators in special session on violent crime to allow Attorney General Eric Schmitt to prosecute murder cases in St. Louis.

Parson said he has not contacted St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner regarding his plan, nor did she ask for the assistance.

Gardner released a statement shortly after Parson’s announcement saying the move is an effort to “interfere with the clear discretion of a democratically elected local prosecutor.”

Parson said Schmitt would be able to get involved if “90 or more days have passed since a filing since the murder was committed, the chief law enforcement officer makes the request of the attorney general and the circuit attorney has not yet filed charges.”

Parson criticized Gardner when she charged the couple who brandished guns at protesters in St. Louis. Parson accused her of taking away “constitutional rights” and insinuated he may try to remove her from her post with the help of President Donald Trump. But he said this decision wasn’t personal.

“This has nothing to do with the prosecutor, taking her out of the role of being prosecutor,” Parson said Monday. “This is about violent criminals on the streets of St. Louis that cases haven’t been filed on.”

Gardner said her office has “an overall felony conviction rate of 97%.” She said unprosecuted crimes are due to “lack of evidence and lack of community trust with law enforcement.”

Parson said that not only does St. Louis have a crime problem, but that charges have been filed in just 33 homicide cases so far in 2020 out of 161 killings.

Schmitt also has publicly criticized Gardner, saying she has let crime get out of hand in the city. He’s repeatedly said that Gardner bringing charges against Mark and Patricia McCloskey for unlawful use of a weapon against protesters is “a political prosecution.” Gardner is a Democrat, and Parson and Schmitt are both Republicans.

Though Parson’s formal announcement came late Monday afternoon, lawmakers were already discussing the details in a committee hearing earlier in the day.

St. Louis Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards, who testified in favor of the legislation passed by the Senate on Friday, said he is opposed to Parson’s latest idea, known as concurrent jurisdiction.

“I have the highest respect for elected officials,” Edwards said. “I believe that if they are elected to do a job, then they ought to be able to do that job. I will not advocate, nor will I support, dual prosecution for any elected prosecutor in any state of Missouri.”

Edwards is in favor of removing a residency requirement for St. Louis police officers, which has been a contentious portion of the legislation, especially since voters are set to weigh in on the issue in November. St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden, who also wants the residency requirement lifted, testified that the department is short more than 140 officers.

“The house that’s on fire is the fact that I have no police officers, and so that’s my focus. It’s very singular,” Edwards said.

But Rep. Justin Hill, R-Lake St. Louis, said that wasn’t why police didn’t want to work in St. Louis. He said Gardner was to blame.

“I don’t think the fire is the residency rule. I think the fire is the prosecutor,” Hill said.

Parson’s effort to allow the attorney general to become involved in prosecuting violent crime comes less than a week after Gardner was reelected to her post. Gardner is the first Black woman to be elected as circuit attorney in St. Louis. Hill claimed in a committee hearing that only 5.8% of voters reelected Gardner, but city election data shows 37.8% of eligible voters cast ballots in the circuit attorney race, with nearly 61% supporting Gardner.

House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, called Parson’s move a “politically motivated abuse of power.”

“The session took a more sinister turn as the governor seeks to carry out a political vendetta against the only elected African American woman prosecutor in Missouri,” Quade said.

Though the House was expected to wrap up its portion of the legislation by midweek, this possible addition to the legislation will keep lawmakers in the Capitol longer during the coronavirus pandemic. It will be up to the Legislature, which is controlled by Republicans, to accept or reject Parson’s recommendations.

The legislation also includes provisions to allow children as young as 14 to be tried as adults and creates a witness protection fund. A nonpartisan analysis shows this legislation would lock up more juveniles and is estimated to cost $1.2 million in the first year of implementation. The bill passed the Senate 27-3 on Friday.

Follow Jaclyn on Twitter: @DriscollNPR

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