St. Louis’ criminal justice reforms are under direct attack from Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, with the help of some powerful local, state and federal accomplices.
In the past two years, St. Louis has succeeded in accomplishing some hard-fought reforms. In 2018, state legislators came together to raise the age where a child is automatically certified in court as an adult to 18 by January 2021. Through St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner’s diversion programs and advocacy organizations’ bail-relief initiatives, the jail population has declined so much that St. Louis city aldermen recently voted to close the Medium Security Institution (known as the Workhouse) by the end of the year. This spring, the city started implementing the violence-interruption program Cure Violence and has been working to gain the community’s trust even through the pandemic.
In one fell swoop, Parson is working to undo it all — via special session no less. And he has help from St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, U.S. Attorney Jeff Jensen and Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt.
On July 27, Parson convened a special session to push through the six-part Senate Bill 1, which included lowering the age to 12 where children can be convicted as adults and sent to adult prison for unlawful use of a weapon and armed criminal action.
The bill undermined “the spirit of the landmark bipartisan Raise the Age reform,” which is set to be fully implemented in just three short months, wrote Rev. Dr. Starsky D. Wilson, president and CEO of Deaconess Foundation, and Kristian Blackmon, a local organizer with the D.C.-based Campaign for Youth Justice, in an August 12 column for The American.
“There is widespread consensus that the adult system is more harmful for children and unequipped to meet their needs,” Wilson and Blackmon wrote. “The juvenile system is better designed to provide children, even those with serious offenses, with education, therapy and intensive restorative programming that is mostly absent from the adult system.”
Parson had to make this move look less horrific by bundling it with other things, including a pretrial witness protection fund that Democrats argue has no funding, allowing certain witness statements to be admissible under law (which already exists through case law), and increasing the penalties for endangering a child and selling weapons to children under 18. (Somehow a child is defined as under 18 for part of his plan.)
And finally, Parson wants to eliminate the residency requirement for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and allow an officer to live within an hour from the city. Parson’s proposal also prohibits requiring any public safety employee for the City of St. Louis to be a city resident.
But it’s not all on Parson. Krewson, Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards and Police Chief John Hayden have done anything and everything to throw out the residency requirement, even bypass city voters (it’s on the November 3 ballot) and go along with sending 12-year-olds to adult prison.
The bill was set to sail through the Missouri Senate and the House, but then Parson got greedy. On August 10, Parson announced he was expanding his special session on violent crime to include a new provision “to assist with the growing backlog of murder cases in St. Louis.”
He proposed giving Schmitt concurrent jurisdiction in the City of St. Louis – but nowhere else in the state – to “take on some of the murder cases that have not yet been prosecuted.” Not only did it draw the ire from Gardner’s supporters, but it was met with vehement opposition from the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.
“Any attempt to vest the attorney general with jurisdiction to prosecute homicides without the request of the elected prosecuting attorney fundamentally changes our system of local, independent prosecution that has served the citizens of Missouri well since 1875,” the association’s statement read.
Even Republican House leaders balked.
“Given the fact the governor expanded the call as one of our committees was considering the bill he originally proposed, we think it’s important to take a step back and give additional thought and attention to each part of the plan,” a joint statement from Republican House leadership said.
SB1 piece by piece
Now Senate Bill 1 is dead — but the fight is far from over.
The House has broken up SB1 into pieces. Starting on August 17, House committees started passing individual bills relating to Parson’s plan. They passed House Bill 12, which raises the age to charge a child as an adult to 16 instead of 14 (which is where it had landed in Senate Bill 1 after starting at 12). They also passed House Bill 46 for the residency requirement of police and public safety employees, even though one Democratic committee member from Kirkwood — state Rep. Deb Lavender — argued that there were good reasons why the residency requirement was originally put in place.
“There have been times that people were concerned that whites living outside of Black neighborhoods would be an armed force overseeing residents of the city,” Lavender said.
What didn’t pass through committee was Parson’s push for concurrent jurisdiction for Schmitt. That was not for lack of trying from state Rep. Nick Schroer (R-O’Fallon), who also sponsored HB12. In addition, Schroer tried to pass a bill to establish procedures for recalling the St. Louis’ circuit attorney (but no other prosecutor in the state).
Not one of these white male Republicans — Parson, Schmitt or Schroer — live in the City of St. Louis or can vote for the city’s prosecutor.
“What’s funny is, you have a governor who is trying to attack Kim, who has just won her second election overwhelmingly,” said state Rep. Rasheen Aldridge (D-St. Louis). “But he hasn’t even been elected into office. He was appointed into his position — as well as Eric Schmitt. And they are trying to attack someone who was elected twice, showing that she has the trust of the people.”
The effort to undermine Gardner died in the House. “It could come up in the Senate,” Aldridge said, “but I don’t see it happening.”
Two years ago, the Raise the Age legislation went through the proper process, Aldridge said, with lively debates and Missouri residents traveling two hours to testify. Parson’s move to undo that through a special session undermines both the voters and the legislators who researched and worked hard together to get it done.
“He isn’t even trying to see if that legislation has been effective because it hasn’t had an opportunity to go fully into effect,” Aldridge said. “It’s frustrating and it’s disheartening that politics are trumping good, smart legislation that could actually help our state. But you have an appointed governor that only wants to play games and try to get re-elected and thinks being tougher on crime is going to fix things. And it’s not.”
That, too, died in the House.
Cure Violence in peril
Gardner won the August 4 primary with more than 60% of the vote. The day after her re-election, Parson announced that the City of St. Louis is getting an infusion of federal law enforcement — 50 federal investigators from the Department of Homeland Security and $1 million from the Bureau of Justice — to “help combat violent crime,” as well as two special United States attorneys from the Missouri Attorney General’s Office to support violent crime prosecution.
Krewson, Edwards and Hayden were present to support the announcement, but Gardner was not. For many advocates, this showed that any promises these leaders have made to address the root causes of crime are empty ones.
“City leaders have just given us an example of their lack of commitment to Cure Violence’s public health approach to violence,” wrote leaders of the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression (CAPCR) in an August 11 column.
“We do not need more law enforcers rounding people up, jailing them, and throwing away the key. We advocate a re-envisioning of public safety that does not rely on arrest, prosecution and incarceration. We actively support a grassroots strategy that takes into account the wishes and desires of the local residents and empowers them to effectively address crime and violence.”
And the more people arrested, the more jail space will be needed — effectively undoing the closure of the Workhouse.
CAPCR stated, “It is extremely disheartening to see city officials once again advocating this misguided, discredited vision.”