The Best-Laid Plans
“A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” ― James the Apostle
The quote from the Apostle James seems particularly applicable to the First Extraordinary Session of 2020. It seems like ages ago, but fewer than six weeks have passed since the governor issued a proclamation calling the General Assembly back to Jefferson City to address the spate of violent crime currently plaguing Missouri’s largest cities. At the time of the governor’s call, conventional wisdom inside the halls of the State Capitol envisioned a brief and orderly extra session. Most presumed the Senate would present a single bill containing six reforms recommended by the governor, and the House of Representatives would largely agree and support the Senate bill. Most observers expected the session to end quickly, perhaps in as little as one week.
The poet Robert Burns said the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry, and that seems to be the case with this year’s extra session. The governor’s plan for passing laws to help prosecutors and police combat violent crime in Missouri have not been thwarted completely, but possibly the most impactful parts of his plans seem to have disappeared.
With Missouri consistently ranking among the most dangerous states in America, it was entirely reasonable for the governor to ask lawmakers to seek solutions. Homicides in Missouri’s two largest cities are on pace to exceed all recent annual tallies. In St. Louis, the city police force faces chronic understaffing. The situation is so dire, federal agents have been dispatched to both Kansas City and St. Louis to assist local authorities.
The governor’s call, issued July 15, requested six specific measures. He proposed waiving an existing residency requirement for members of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. He wanted every juvenile accused of murder to appear before a judge, who would determine whether the youth should be certified for trial in adult court. He proposed a special fund to pay for security and relocation costs for witnesses in criminal trials (witness protection program). He wanted changes to “hearsay” rules so certain testimony could be admitted in court, without an intimidated witness having to appear in person. He asked legislators to raise the penalty for transferring a firearm to a minor and asked us to make it illegal to enlist a juvenile in the commission of a violent crime.
The Legislature convened on July 27 as ordered, but despite the governor’s plea for lawmakers to proceed with haste, the General Assembly delayed deliberations until after the primary election. Senate Bill 1, which contained the six provisions sought by the governor, cleared the upper chamber on Aug. 6. The following week, just as the House Judiciary Committee seemed prepared to advance the bill, the governor expanded his call for the extra session. The expanded call was to accommodate a compromise reached in the senate to grant Missouri’s attorney general “concurrent jurisdiction” to prosecute murder cases in the City of St. Louis when local prosecutors fail to bring charges. Instead of passing SB 1, the House of Representatives announced it would reintroduce the governor’s requests as separate bills. This week, the House sent five of the measures back to the Senate. Neither the juvenile certification portion, nor the concurrent jurisdiction proposal were included, or even received a vote from the full House.
In the coming days, the Senate will reconsider the five surviving measures. Each of these proposals was included in the comprehensive bill previously passed in the upper chamber, and there’s little reason to believe they won’t be approved again when presented individually. The prospects for the two measures omitted by the House of Representatives are not good. It is my understanding the votes do not exist in the House to pass those two. Without support from the House, the requirement that a judge consider trying youthful murder defendants as adults appears lost. It’s possible the Senate could propose its own version of the concurrent jurisdiction legislation, but it’s not clear the House will ever take it up.
Such is the nature of the legislative process. The checks and balances inherent in our system mean the governor may call a special session and request passage of a bill, but the Legislature is not compelled to comply. And even when there is agreement in one legislative chamber, a measure will not succeed unless the other chamber agrees. Although some good ideas may take longer to become law, the process is an often-effective protection for the people.
On one level, this extra session of 2020 may prove disappointing. I believe the juvenile certification reform did not survive the House because it was largely misrepresented and misunderstood. Furthermore, I will be disappointed if the Senate doesn’t at least consider the concurrent jurisdiction idea for murder cases. Still, the legislation likely to become law will make a difference. These measures won’t end violent crime in Missouri, but they may help. Only the tyrants who benefit from violence would not agree that anything that reducing violence in our streets is good for Missourians and for Missouri.
Thank you for reading this legislative report. You can contact my office at (573) 751-2108 if you have any questions. Thank you and we welcome your prayers for the proper application of state government.