Missouri governor will seek harsher sentences to fight violent crime

"If we are to make real change, we must get violent crime under control in our communities," Gov. Mike Parson said

By Jonathan Shorman and Jeanne Kuang
The Kansas City Star
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri Gov. Mike Parson wants harsher prison sentences for violent crime, including a reversal of limits he approved less than two years ago, according to an internal governor's office document.

Parson, a Republican, supports increased penalties for individuals previously convicted of dangerous felonies. And he backs expanding the range of possible punishment for unlawful possession of a firearm.

Parson also wants to remove caps on sentences for individuals convicted of armed criminal action, which occurs when a weapon is used to commit a felony. The limits were put into law just two years ago as part of a criminal justice measure he signed.

In this July 7, 2020, file photo, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson speaks in the White House in Washington.
In this July 7, 2020, file photo, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson speaks in the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The priorities are on a slide prepared for a presentation at a November meeting of Parson's cabinet. The Star obtained the presentation, which provides a high-level overview of the governor's legislative goals, through a records request.

Parson's desire to increase sentences comes as Kansas City and St. Louis have struggled with high numbers of homicides over the past two years. In 2021, 157 people were murdered in Kansas City, the second deadliest year in city history following 2020, when 182 people were killed.

A former sheriff of Polk County, Parson and Republicans nationally staked out "tough on crime" stances in 2020, accusing Democrats of wanting to defund the police. Much of the messaging fell by the wayside after the presidential election, but with midterm elections in 2022, Republicans may again return to crime as a wedge issue.

It's unclear if the sentencing changes represent the entirety of Parson's legislative priorities on crime or whether his plans have shifted since November. The sentencing revisions were the only crime-related items in the presentation, which also included proposals on Missouri's open records law and workforce development.

A Parson spokeswoman didn't respond to requests for comment.

Parson has spoken often about the need to address violent crime. "If we are to make real change, we must get violent crime under control in our communities," he said his 2021 State of the State address.

A public unveiling of Parson's crime-related priorities may come next week. The governor will deliver the 2022 State of State, formally rolling out his legislative agenda for the year.

"Clearly anything that we could do to rein in violent crime in the state of Missouri I'm going to be in favor of. Anything that we can do to create a deterrent for people to commit heinous crimes in our largest cities I'm going to be supportive of," said Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, a Parkville Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Luetkemeyer said he hadn't spoken to the governor's office about the proposals, but said there had been a passing reference to changes to crime laws during a Senate Republican retreat. He said he needed to look at the details of Parson's plans, but is looking forward "to having those conversations."

Rep. Rasheen Aldrige, a St. Louis Democrat on the House Crime Prevention Committee, said he hadn't seen the slide. But he said lawmakers should be "smart on crime" rather than "tough on crime."

"I think trying to rehabilitate people instead of trying to continue to punish them and to put them into a system that, ultimately they get labeled 'you have a felony' ... now you have a black cloud on your life," Aldridge said, describing his approach.

Armed criminal action changes

Other issues may limit the attention lawmakers pay to crime this year. Redistricting and the budget, including funding for Medicaid expansion, loom large over the session.

And Parson has a mixed record on crime legislation. He has signed some criminal justice bills into law but a special session focused on violent crime he called in 2020 was mostly a dud, with lawmakers deadlocked on the most controversial proposals, including a measure to give the attorney general power to intervene in St. Louis murder cases.

In July 2020, Parson signed Senate Bill 600, sponsored by Luetkemeyer, which eliminated probation for some violent offenses and increased the range of punishment for unlawful possession of a firearm. It makes conspiracy and gang-related charges similar to those at the federal level. And it created the crime of vehicle hijacking.

The legislation alarmed criminal justice reform advocates, who warned the increased penalties would disproportionately affect Black men. Under SB 600 individuals convicted of armed criminal action — which is paired with another crime, such as robbery — must serve their sentences consecutively, not concurrently, increasing time spent in prison.

Armed criminal action was the 3rd most common offense of Black people in Missouri prison as of June 2020, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections. For white, Hispanic, Native American and Asian people in prison, armed criminal action was only the 9th most common offense.

But SB 600 also limited the maximum sentence for a first armed criminal action conviction to 15 years in prison and 30 years for the second offense. Previously, only a minimum sentence was included in the law.

Parson now wants to remove the sentence caps, according to the slide. The offense was previously an unclassified felony, "which allows the judge to consider what weapon the defendant used to commit the offense when the judge is sentencing the defendant," the slide says.

"These proposals would be welcome additions to the criminal code providing additional tools to deal with violent offenders and greater certainty of punishment for those convicted of engaging in firearm offenses," Dan Patterson, Greene County Prosecuting Attorney and president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said in a statement.

In a statement, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker didn't indicate whether she supports or opposes Parson's priorities. But she pointed to other steps that can be taken to fight gun violence.

"The Governor's priorities attempt to address violence committed with the aid of a firearm throughout our state. All parts of the state suffer from gun violence. Missouri ranks high in alarming categories regarding criminal events. It also ranks high for suicides by firearms and children picking up unsecured guns and harming themselves or others," Peters Baker said.

Peters Baker added that "many ideas have been shown to work here" including education, training requirements for gun ownership, requirements to safely store weapons, registration for stolen firearms and "red flag" laws that temporarily remove guns from high-risk individuals, as well as laws intended to prevent domestic abusers from having guns.

(c)2022 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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