Cole County prosecutor testifies against special prosecutor clause

Locke Thompson
Locke Thompson

A bill in the Missouri Legislature could provide formerly incarcerated people who do not have access to health insurance with up to six months of MO HealthNet benefits.

Rep. Kimberly-Ann Collins, D-St. Louis, supported provisions that allowed recently released convicts receive health services through the state's Medicaid program during a House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee meeting Thursday morning.

She and others were behind some parts of the small public safety omnibus, but raised major concerns about other parts of the bill, namely a clause in the bill that would appoint a special prosecutor to serve in St. Louis.

"I don't have a problem with (MO HealthNet services for former inmates) in a bill, I just wanted to know why you would use this bill as the avenue for that," Collins said. "If we're talking about reducing recidivism, we have to do so much more than offer six months of free healthcare."

Conservatives, on the other hand, focused, pointedly, on the aspects of the bill that would address crime and public safety in St. Louis.

The Missouri House Committee on Crime Prevention and Public Safety heard testimony on House Bill 301, an omnibus bill to address policing concerns in Missouri during a hearing that lasted nearly four hours.

Cole County Prosecuting Attorney Locke Thompson personally supported certain clauses in the bill, like health and identification services for former inmates, but still testified against the bill, sparking discussion from several lawmakers on the committee. His main objection was to the St. Louis special prosecutor clause. He also mentioned the need for a more systemic approach to crime prevention.

"Our position, as a prosecutors association, is that we're afraid that this would open the door to future instances of invading prosecutorial discretion going forward," Thompson said.

"Here in Cole County we have great law enforcement agencies who, one, get the right person and, two, get the evidence they need to prove them guilty," Thompson said.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Lane Roberts, R-Joplin, and includes many provisions, including one that would allow for the appointment of a special prosecutor to handle special cases in St. Louis, an aspect of the bill that was criticized by many Democrats on the committee.

Roberts said a special prosecutor was needed to address high crime rates in St. Louis. He claimed the per capita homicide rate in St. Louis was twice that of Chicago.

If elected, the special prosecutor would have exclusive jurisdiction over seven specific types of crime, but would not have concurrent jurisdiction with the current circuit court prosecutor in St. Louis.

Roberts objected to the suggestion of appointing multiple special prosecutors instead of a single one.

"What happens when there's a difference of opinion," he asked the committee.

The bill also stipulates that former inmates would be provided with several forms of identification information upon release. It also establishes certain considerations for allowing someone to post bail, like if they are a flight risk or had prior convictions.

Other aspects of the bill would repeal minimum prison terms for certain crimes and change laws around the offense of "unlawful possession of a firearm." A clause in the bill would also provide a full tuition reimbursement for any police officer that trains to be a peace officer and gets full-time employment with a law enforcement agency for four years.

The majority of discussion in the hearing, however, was regarding the special prosecutor appointment, calling several witnesses who both supported and opposed the bill.

Roberts, when addressing the committee about his bill, expressed a lack of confidence in the prosecutor's office of St. Louis.

"That department (St. Louis) has a significant vacancy rate," Roberts said.

Among others, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft testified in support of the bill.

During the hearing, Collins agreed with Thompson's claims about addressing systemic issues and brought committee discussion to topics like food deserts, employment discrimination and housing insecurity.

"I heard (Thompson) say 'root causes.' I heard him talk about education. I heard him talk about employment. And I heard him talk about housing. I heard him talk about all of that," Collins said. "And that's why I started talking about housing stability. That's the route that I was trying to go down when they talked about ex-offenders I kept saying, 'Well, they got to have somewhere to go.'"

HB 301: Modifies and establishes provisions relating to public safety

Sponsor Rep. Lane Roberts