Parson says new law will cut violent crime. Experts aren't so sure.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson is calling a crime bill he signed into law this week “a large step toward safety and justice for our communities.”
That would be good news in a state where crime has been spiking in major cities to the point where one, Kansas City, has been on pace to set a record for homicides this year.
But experts who study criminal justice say most changes in the new law probably won’t make much of a dent, and the other changes will only be effective in the short term without long-term investment in affected communities.
The bulk of the changes in the bill, which Parson signed again in a ceremony at the Springfield Regional Police and Fire Training Center Friday, trouble criminologists because they put so much faith in the power of throwing the book at suspects.
Several provisions that grabbed headlines focus on ramping up sentences for violent crimes, especially those committed with a weapon.
Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, who sponsored the bill, specifically called out a provision eliminating probation for people who commit second-degree murder and other dangerous felonies Friday as a key way to rein in violence.
“Under Senate Bill 600, violent offenders will no longer walk into a courtroom to face sentencing, only to walk right back out into the streets to re-offend,” he said.
Greene County Prosecutor Dan Patterson seconded that sentiment, saying the bill “sends a powerful message to those who would use firearms to commit crimes.”
But experts said a large volume of research shows that threatening people with long prison sentences isn't much of a deterrent because criminals either don’t hear the threat or don’t care.
“In many cases, the individuals targeted by a sentencing enhancement statute are likely to be unaware of the legislative changes,” wrote Brett Garland, who leads the criminology department at Missouri State, in an email to the News-Leader.
Even if they find out, Garland added, many criminals don’t care because the allure of a “big financial score” or gaining prestige in a gang is enough to push the fear of hard time out of mind.
Then there’s the issue that some criminals just don’t think they’ll get caught, he said.
Gary Kleck, a criminologist at Florida State University who has studied gun violence for decades, made similar points.
“There’s no controversy about severity,” he said in an interview Friday. “It’s irrelevant. And even if a criminal does notice the new severity, they just think, ‘Well, I won’t get caught.’”
Ken Novak, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said the bill’s approach does nothing to convince criminals otherwise.
“SB600 does nothing to enhance the likelihood of being caught and punished,” he wrote in an email.
He said the bill’s whole approach smacks of previous failed policy.
“(The bill) feels good and has all the comfort of ‘get tough’ and ‘hold people accountable’ rhetoric of the past,” he wrote. “But the likelihood this alone will translate to actual public safety is remote.”
Kleck and Garland were more charitable.
Kleck, the Florida State criminologist, said Luetkemeyer’s provisions making it easier to prosecute people for planning crimes and being gang members could get around the failure to deter criminals by simply locking more of them up.
And because Missouri’s prison system is below capacity as a result of reforms that took effect in 2017 — in contrast to most states where prisons are full — Kleck said the state could exploit that to give communities hurt by violence some breathing room.
“It gives a little space to people to be decent. There’s real benefit to locking up the bad guys,” he said. “There’s less of a need to defend yourself with violence or be ready to defend yourself, for example.”
“Getting harmful people off the streets can enhance public safety, assuming that the punished criminals would have continued engaging in violent behavior during the period of their imprisonment,” he wrote in an email.
Locking people up is still a short-term solution, Kleck warned.
“Any long-term solutions, they have to be aimed at the next generation, and you’ve got to give them some kind of hope for the future where they don't have to to burglary or robbery to support themselves,” he said.
He said education and job training are the obvious places to start.
“It’s real old-fashioned stuff,” he said. “But you give people a stake in conformity, and that has an impact.”
Parson told reporters Friday he’s well aware of that challenge.
"You've got to figure how you go into poverty areas and high-crime areas, how do you do something with the kids that are in those situations, such as early childhood development?" he said. “How do you give them an education, job training, the ability to get out?"
Parson did not answer those rhetorical questions Friday, though.
As governor, he has pushed to make it easier for adults without college degrees to get them and proposed increasing funding for at least one early childhood program.
He’s also approved cutbacks for those programs amid a coronavirus-fueled revenue shortage this year, though.
He also said he’s tried to emphasize the importance of rehabilitating and training current prisoners to re-enter society with jobs so they’re not repeat offenders.
“But,” he added, “I will also say the law enforcement side of it, there’s bad people out there. That’s just the way it is. And you’re not going to be able to deal with them telling them to put their hands behind their back and we’re going to handcuff you. Sometimes you're going to have to use force with force, and that's where we're at with violent criminals.”
Parson went on to say he plans to continue pushing for more criminal justice-related proposals in a special session later this year.
Possible topics could a proposal that failed earlier this year to have the state pay for witness protection programs and plans to bolster law enforcement ranks in the major cities.
“We're a long way from getting everything done we need to get done,” he said.
Austin Huguelet is the News-Leader's politics reporter. Got something he should know? Have a question? Call him at 417-403-8096 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also support local journalism at News-Leader.com/subscribe.