JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – State representatives zeroed in on the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office Monday, where thousands of cases have yet to be prosecuted.
The legislation up for discussion is to decide when the governor should be allowed to appoint a special prosecutor. Originally, the bill heard in a House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee last 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.
No one from the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office was present at Thursday’s hearing, but during a second hearing Monday, representatives from Kim Gardner’s office testified in opposition.
“Our violent crime unit is being able to handle successfully, and our recent verdicts attest to that as much,” chief warrant officer for the circuit attorney’s office Chris Hinckley told the committee. “There is no reason to ask for help in that area.”
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 homicides per 100,000 people.
“Now, the state envisions, if I’m correct, superseding us as citizens and saying, ‘Don’t worry about who you voted for, we’re going to take over,'” Redditt Hudson, a former St. Louis police officer and diversion specialist for Gardner’s office, said. “We have a person that has been elected, with the processes in place, constitutionally and legally, to do the job.”
Roberts said some bipartisan lawmakers spoke with 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 during Thursday committee hearing. “Unfortunately, the only request that she made was for money. Money is not going to do the trick.”
While testifying, Hinckley agreed with Gardner that the office needs more money to increase pay. He said employees are constantly leaving to go work for the St. Louis County Prosecutor’s Office instead.
“I think one of the things that would be very helpful is the ability to increase our salary,” Hinckley said. “People leave our office to go to Mr. Bell’s office, and remember, everyone leaves for money. It’s a significant increase.”
Hinckley said the starting salary at the Circuit Attorney’s office is around $50,000.
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.
Rep. Bill Hardwick (R-Waynesville) asked Hinckley about the backlog of cases. Hinckley said the office has a backlog of 3,500 cases, but none of them are violent crime cases.
Hinckley also called out the state for the lack of gun laws.
“You throw guns all over the place, and then you ask us why crime has increased? And you try to connect it to the prosecutor?” Hinckley said. “The prosecutor who is doing the best she can?”
Jane Dueker, who represents the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, said the agency has a list with more than 4,000 cases that are awaiting a decision from the circuit attorney, some of them violent crimes, on whether to file criminal charges.
“The bill seems to assume that the backlog is a backlog of violent crimes,” Hinckley said. “From the state, with the police and prosecutors, the violent crimes will never and were not ever delayed in review or issuance.”
Some members of the committee stressed their frustration with the fact the chairman held a second hearing, but Gardner did not show up.
“I will say, and I would imagine many of my committee members, are extremely disappointed that she failed to appear today, but I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that she failed to do her job,” Rep. Alex Riley (R-Springfield) said. “That seems to be her M.O.”
He said of the 3,500 cases, 50% are drug-related, and the remaining cases are misdemeanors or property damage.
A spokesperson for the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office, who oversees the City of Kansas City, said the office does not have a backlog of cases.
The St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney’s office could not provide the number of backlogged cases Monday, but said in a statement, “There is a significant backlog of applications for charges that we are addressing with the resources available.”
Other members on the committee said Gardner’s office should look at this as help, instead of taking away authority.
“To me, it seems like assistance to you guys and not more of hurting you guys,” Rep. Justin Hicks (R-Lake St. Louis) said. “It allows you to prosecute more cases.”
The Missouri Chamber of Commerce testified to the committee last week, 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,” said Kara Corches, vice president of governmental affairs with the Missouri Chamber of Commerce. “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.”
St. Louis Police Chief Robert Tracy was at the Missouri Capitol last 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.”
The circuit attorney’s office sent out a statement Thursday afternoon after the first committee hearing saying 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.St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office
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 a photo identification card and offering Medicaid services for six months after their release.
The bill has not been voted out of committee yet. Another public hearing on the legislation has been set for Monday at noon.