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Government, Politics & Issues

Missouri Senate Pushes Through Proposal Taking Aim At St. Louis Circuit Attorney

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Jaclyn Driscoll
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St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, seen here during a 12-hour filibuster during the special legislative session last month, held the floor again on Wednesday as senators debated a concurrent jurisdiction proposal.

Updated at 2 30 p.m. Sept. 3

After hours of sometimes heated filibustering and closed-door discussions, the Missouri Senate just after 3 a.m. Thursday passed a measure to allow the attorney general to prosecute murder cases in St. Louis.

The Senate was having a fairly low-profile morning until just before noon Wednesday, when Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis, reintroduced the idea of concurrent jurisdiction, taking aim at Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner.

“Even if we take the most charitable view of the work of the current circuit attorney in the city of St. Louis, even if we assume she’s doing everything that she can to bring criminals to justice, to bring justice to victims, she is badly understaffed,” Onder said. “(She) has very little experience in her office and badly needs help.”

Onder cited a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article that showed roughly 65 prosecutors had left Gardner’s office since she became circuit attorney in 2017.

Despite Gov. Mike Parson expanding his plan weeks into the session to include concurrent jurisdiction, the idea was never considered in the House. It had appeared dead until Wednesday.

On Thursday, Parson reiterated that the decision should not have been a partisan one.

"No matter where you live, what your party affiliations are, all that... this is about stopping homicides in the state of Missouri," said Parson. "Everybody should be on board in fighting violent crime."

Parson also said "the only way the attorney general could come in is if the local authorities would ask him to come in." But, the provision lays out a few ways the state can get involved. One of them is just if 90 days have passed since the crime was committed.

As expected, Onder’s proposal drew sharp criticism from Senate Democrats, particularly those from St. Louis, and held up legislative discussion for hours.

Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, said the effort was a political stunt intended solely to try to drum up conservative support for Republicans in November.

“When did you and him start to care about the young African Americans that have been dying in the city of St. Louis?” May said. “Don’t tell me you walk on during this election year and you start to care about my people.”

Gardner was reelected by voters in August with about 61% of the vote. Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, said this was an attempt to buck the will of voters.

“Here you are trying to strip away her power simply because she’s a Black woman standing up for criminal justice reform,” Nasheed said.

Onder said the proposal had nothing to do with race but instead was about a “low conviction rate.” Parson has also criticized Gardner for not filing enough murder charges in St. Louis. He said she’s only charged 33 people with murder, while there have been 162 killings in the city in 2020.

Gardner could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday morning. But in a recent St. Louis on the Air interview, she said, “Most violent crime in the city of St. Louis does not even come to our office.”

She cited a lack of evidence and witness participation stemming from the community’s lack of trust in law enforcement.

In a statement last month, Garder said that her office has “an overall felony conviction rate of 97%” and that “solving crime will take all of us working together not divisive political maneuvers.”

The Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys has publicly opposed the idea, saying it “erodes the ability of local voters to decide who will seek justice on their behalf.”

Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, noted the decision was not unanimous, and some attorneys disagree with the association’s position.

I think there’s a difference of opinion on policy, and we are ultimately the policymakers in this body,” Luetkemeyer said. “I think the city of St. Louis is fundamentally different from the other counties and the other county prosecutors around the state.”

Senators began working behind the scenes around 9 p.m., eventually coming back on the floor around 1:30 a.m. Onder changed his original proposal, adding an expiration date of August 2023, which appeared to be a concession to Democrats.

Republicans flexed their super-majority muscle to cut off debate, no longer allowing Democrats the ability to filibuster the proposal after Fiscal Oversight Committee met just after 2 a.m. Nasheed said not giving 24 hours notice before debating the measure was breaking the law.

When asked by St. Louis Public Radio on Thursday morning about Nasheed's claim of legality, Parson said it wasn't his "job to worry about that."

"I think right now, trying to give people the tools we need to take murderers off the street, we should be doing that every day," he said.

Onder's amendment was tacked onto a bill pertaining to witness statement admissibility. Because of the change, it will need to go back to the House. The move last month to break up the crime legislation into single-subject bills was a way to ensure concurrent jurisdiction would pass through both chambers, legislative sources note.

The Prosecuting Attorneys association issued issued a statement on Thursday saying they are "gravely concerned" about this "unprecedented usurpation of the authority of a locally elected prosecutor being attempted by Missouri's Attorney General."

The group also questioned the legality of how the measure was passed saying it "likely violates the Missouri Constitution, jeopardizing any conviction the Attorney General might obtain."

The late passage of the proposal was applauded by Rep. Nick Schroer, R-O'Fallon, who was crafting the language in the House. He said on Twitter "our true health crisis is the bodies piling up from violent crime."

Residency rule lifted

Earlier Wednesday, the chamber gave final approval to legislation that would lift residency requirements for St. Louis police officers and other emergency responders. It now heads to Parson, who is expected to sign it into law.

While the measure did earn bipartisan support, Democrats have argued this is a local control issue and should be left up to voters who will weigh in this November.

The proposal allows emergency responders to live within a one-hour response time and includes a three-year sunset in case voters reject the idea this fall.

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, who has advocated for the rule change, thanked the Legislature and said this move brings the department in line with other jurisdictions across the state.

“It is also one tool we can use to address public safety at a time when the city of St. Louis has already seen more than 180 homicides this year while our police department remains stretched thin by a continued shortage of more than 140 officers,” Krewson said in a statement.

The Senate also gave approval to legislation that creates a witness protection fund. However, there is no actual funding tied to the measure, which will likely need an appropriation bill added in the future.

Back to the House

Two measures are headed back to the House after the Senate made changes. One, which deals with endangering a child in the first degree, has a small language change that is likely to be approved quickly.

The other has received criticism after the House eliminated penalties for giving a gun to minors without parental permission. This came after some rural representatives expressed concerns about family members taking out children to hunt or for target practice, without malicious intent, possibly being charged with a crime.

The Senate version attempts to clear that up by excluding some family members from penalties as long as they “reasonably believe” they have the consent of a custodial parent or guardian.

Senators also approved an amendment pertaining to juveniles and the criminal justice system, including correctional treatment programs for minors. The measure originally sought to try minors as young as 12 as adults and met with strong opposition, but it earned bipartisan support after extensive work in the House. The stand-alone bill never made it to the House floor last week, a move the Legislative Black Caucus called “disappointing.”

House members have yet to release a schedule for when they will return, but some suggest they may hold off until the veto session on Sept. 16.

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