Final push of Parson's anti-crime special session fizzles in House

Austin Huguelet
Springfield News-Leader

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s special session on violent crime appeared to reach an end Wednesday, and he didn’t get everything he wanted.

The Republican-dominated House called it quits in the early afternoon without voting on five of seven ideas the GOP governor had made priorities. The chamber adjourned sine die, so they’re not coming back.

Among the rejected ideas were small, technical changes enhancing penalties for adults who give guns to kids or encourage them to commit gun crimes themselves, as well as a highly controversial proposal to let the state Attorney General commandeer St. Louis murder cases from the local circuit attorney.

The House also killed a plan that would have codified a U.S. Supreme Court standard for hearing certain witness testimony and required judges to at least consider trying every juvenile accused of felony gun crimes as an adult.

To the governor’s credit, the legislature did pass two bills he called for during the special session, with crime numbers rising in St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield this year.

One creates the foundation for a new witness protection program Parson says will allow law enforcement to secure more crime-solving tips. The other attempts to make it easier to hire police officers in St. Louis by nixing a rule requiring them to live in the city during their first seven years on the force.

House Republican leadership downplayed their decision to reject the other proposals in a statement released after adjournment.

“We are excited to have passed several significant measures to provide additional resources for law enforcement officers and protect the witnesses against violent criminals,” the statement read.

Parson also downplayed the rejection.

"We got the two main pieces that we wanted," he said. "Anything we can do to help law enforcement, to help victims in this state to fight violent crime is a win, no matter how small or how big it is."

But Democrats weren’t letting them off that easy.

Seth Bundy, a spokesman for Senate Democrats, prefaced an emailed statement from Minority Leader John Rizzo of Independence by noting his boss was commenting on a special session “which began in July, cost taxpayers $200,000, and in which five of his seven proposals failed despite (the governor’s) own party controlling both legislative chambers.”

Parson also took flak from the campaign of State Auditor Nicole Galloway, who’s running to unseat him this fall.

“Republicans’ refusal to pass major parts of Governor Mike Parson’s agenda shows that he can’t even get his own party on board with his so-called law and order campaign message,” campaign manager Chris Sloan said in a statement.

House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, also lamented that the session went by without considering any bills to prevent violence before it happens or address police brutality, a topic that sparked nationwide protests this summer.

“This legislation would not have prevented a single life from being lost or family from being destroyed,” she said.

The two bills the legislature passed may actually have a positive impact, though it's unlikely to be immediate or as far-reaching as policies affecting education and jobs.

Criminologists have told the News-Leader that protecting witnesses is always a good idea and that putting more officers on St. Louis streets could help reduce crime there if they’re deployed correctly, preferably in “hotspot” areas where crime is especially prevalent.

The rejected bills had drawn less optimism, though.

Brett Garland, a criminologist at Missouri State University, said the enhanced penalties for adults giving guns to kids “might dissuade a few people here and there from incorporating youth in criminal activity,” but said that “in the long run, the likelihood is that the impact will be minimal.”

Experts say that’s generally because the severity of a punishment matters far less to criminals than whether or not they think they'll actually be punished.

And Rick Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said letting the attorney general intervene in St. Louis murder cases could get there.

“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 Rosenfeld said the new attorneys will still rely on St. Louis police clearing cases for them to charge, and they won't have much of a hand in whether more cases get solved.

Rosenfeld also shared Quade’s view that police reform would have been a good idea to enact now.

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

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

"Those issues will come, those conversations will take place, but they need to take place in a legislative session, where there's time to deal with it,” he said.

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.