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Rural prosecutors challenge proposed changes

January 18, 2015 at 5:59 a.m. | Updated January 18, 2015 at 5:59 a.m.

Six of Mid-Missouri's 10 prosecuting attorneys are part of the nearly 40 percent of all Missouri prosecutors who don't like two bills filed in the state Senate this year, proposing changes in Missouri's prosecuting attorney system.

The bipartisan, 43-member group of mainly rural prosecutors from all around the state have backed a two-page statement from an organization called the "Missouri Prosecuting Attorneys for Local Accountability and Control."

Their statement begins: "We ... want to keep local control and accountability in the hands of the citizens of our respective counties.

"We oppose a mandated change to a District Attorney or State's Attorney system that takes away local control and accountability from the citizens and elected officials of our county and places it in the hands of bureaucrats in Jefferson City or some other administrator outside of our county."

But Senate Judiciary Chairman Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, who pre-filed the two bills in December, said last week: "Some of the prosecutors are afraid that we're taking away local control - there is nothing that could be further from the truth."

Dixon told the News Tribune in an interview: "There's nothing wrong with the (current) system, and there's nothing broken - but, it's can we improve the system?"

Dixon's Senate Bill 79 would allow county commissions to adopt a resolution abolishing the county prosecuting attorney's office and, instead, join a state's attorney system that would be created.

Under that system, the main prosecutor could cover more than one county, with the state paying the main attorney's salary while the counties would share and continue to cover all other salaries and office costs.

Senate Bill 80 specifies two - or more - contiguous counties within a judicial circuit could cooperate to employ one prosecuting attorney, following existing legal procedures, allowing cooperation among counties.

The prosecutors say the second bill isn't necessary, because of the current laws.

And, Maries County Prosecutor Terry Daley Schwartze said: "We've heard nothing about any attempt to do that" under the existing laws.

But Dixon said, while the Missouri Constitution already allows that cooperation, the bill still is needed because the current law defining prosecutors and their elections says a prosecuting attorney "shall be elected in each county."

Dixon said his proposal especially would be important for some counties - like Worth, Schuyler and Putnam counties in North-Central Missouri - where there have been times when no one ran for the prosecutor's office and where few, if any, licensed attorneys live.

"So all they have is an appointed prosecutor," Dixon noted. "There's no local control there, whatsoever. ...

"If there were a proposal to allow the governor to appoint prosecutors in all counties, there would be widespread opposition to that. (But in some parts of Missouri), in practice, that's what we've got."

Schwartze disagreed.

"We think it's more of an excuse, to say that we need combined counties," she said. "Occasionally all over the state, prosecutors get appointed from time to time.

"It happens - but to change the system for the whole state may not be addressing the problem" - which, she said, is low pay, especially in the smaller counties, where elected prosecutors get no more than $45,000 a year but also can work part-time in a private practice.

Dixon said he's looking at that issue, too, and is thinking about adding a higher minimum pay for part-time prosecutors to the bills.

But, Schwartze said: "We just disagree that the whole state needs to be changed in a system that's worked for years, in counties where people want to elect their own prosecutor."

Dixon noted voters already elect circuit judges across several counties, with the same names appearing on the ballot in each county.

But, Schwartze countered, each county elects its own associate circuit judge, and "We've had a circuit judge for years and, to be honest, I don't know how many people in the county can name their circuit judge."

Maries County is the northern-most part of the four-county 25th judicial circuit that also includes Phelps, Pulaski and Texas counties.

In Mid-Missouri, only Cole County isn't part of a multi-county judicial circuit.

Boone and Callaway counties form the 13th circuit.

Osage and Gasconade counties are joined with Franklin County for the 20th circuit.

And Moniteau, Morgan, Miller, Maries, Camden and Laclede counties make up the 26th judicial circuit.

Dixon said his proposal isn't an all-or-nothing idea.

"You could have a five-county judicial circuit where only two of the counties decide to do this," he said.

Still, Schwartze said, there can be differences among the counties in the same circuit, based on population size or local attitudes.

"When you've got somebody making charging decisions every day, on who gets charged and who doesn't - whether they should be charged, and what level of charge - that has a lot to do with local," she explained. "For example, one of the prosecutors in North Central Missouri said someone from the city wanted to charge child endangerment on a parent who let a 15-year-old have a gun.

"But we have shotguns in the country and people go hunting in the country, and it's just not parental neglect. It's a different mindset, and that's part of wanting someone local to understand the community."

Osage County Prosecutor Amanda Grellner said the prosecutors' group plans a Feb. 4 Capitol rally to take their message to lawmakers.

The Mid-Missouri prosecutors objecting to Dixon's bills include Democrats Grellner, Schwartze and Dustin Dunklee, Morgan County, and Republicans R. Benjamin Winfrey, Miller County; Shane Healea, Moniteau County; and Mary Weston, Gasconade County.

Schwartze was part of a small group that met with Dixon recently. She was encouraged that he wants to get the prosecutors' perspective, but discouraged that he wants to push the bills this year, when "We don't think that's an appropriate amount of time for discussion and fleshing out what the reasons are for these proposals."

Dixon said last week: "Opposition to these bills is opposition to local control, because what the bills do is allows counties another option - and it would be a local vote."


Missouri Prosecuting Attorneys for Local Accountability and Control


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