Missouri lawmakers should debate whether to prohibit probation for killers convicted of second-degree murder, legislators and other public officials said in light of a Kansas City Star series published this week.
The series examined how Jackson County courts used probation in serious violent crime cases. It revealed that, from 2009 through 2013, Jackson County judges gave more probation for second-degree murder than any other circuit court in the state.
The series also noted an unusual provision in state law that prohibits judges from giving second-degree murder defendants 120-day “shock” or treatment sentences, but still allows them to award the defendant outright probation.
In 2013, a Jackson County judge changed the sentence for George Britton Sr. from 120 days to straight probation after Britton’s lawyer noted that state law did not allow the shock time sentence for second-degree murder.
Kansas City Councilman John Sharp — whose daughter, Candice Richie, was killed in Columbia 14 years ago — said the legislature should prohibit probation for second-degree murder, as it already has for first-degree murder and forcible rape.
“I personally don’t think there ever should be probation for murder,” said Sharp, who leads the council’s Public Safety and Emergency Services Committee. “I still don’t think that if you’ve taken a life intentionally you should ever get probation.”
Stanley Cox, chairman of the Missouri House Judiciary Committee, said legislators should revisit sentencing for second-degree murder.
“It does not make any sense, obviously, to have a crime where you can’t give (120-day) shock probation and still give probation,” Cox said before the series was published.
State Sen. Jolie Justus, a lawyer and a member of the Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, also said the law needs to be re-examined, although she stopped short of calling for prohibiting probation for second-degree murder.
“We need to investigate whether that’s the best move,” Justus said. “I think that definitely should be looked at.”
Justus said her work in juvenile courts has taught her how formal risk assessments of troubled young defendants can protect other children and the public at large. Justus said she’d like to explore ways to encourage Jackson County judges to use risk assessments more for violent crime defendants being considered for probation.
The Star series noted that judges seldom order such assessments, which study factors in the defendants’ lives, such as education, employment and drug and alcohol use, that contribute to defendants’ tendency to offend again. Instead, judges tend to rely on prosecutors and defense lawyers to size up a defendant’s risks to society and then make an appropriate sentencing recommendation.
Knowing exactly who you’re sentencing is an important part of judging, said a veteran probation and parole supervisor and officer.
Risk assessments are too valuable to ignore at sentencing, said Stephen Haymes, a circuit court clerk in Clay County who worked 30 years as a probation and parole officer or supervisor in Jackson County and Clay, Platte and Ray counties.
Judges shouldn’t worry about overburdening probation and parole officers by ordering risk assessments, Haymes said.
“From the Department of Corrections and probation and parole’s viewpoints, they would whine about the workload, but it’s still work you would have to do if the person gets probation,” Haymes said.
Todd Graves, who served as U.S. attorney from 2001 through 2006, said the series emphasized for him the continuing need for federal authorities to backstop Jackson County courts by prosecuting armed felons for illegally possessing firearms. Often, that’s the first time a repeat offender with several probation sentences has faced serious prison time.
“It was one of the reasons the felon in possession program was used to fill in the gaps for repeat offenders,” Graves said.
Kansas City Mayor Sly James, a lawyer, and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a former Jackson County prosecutor, each cautioned, in separate written statements, against drawing “broad conclusions” from The Star’s series based on a “snapshot” of data.
McCaskill said comparing Jackson County’s probation rate to its rural and suburban neighbors is “really comparing apples and oranges” given the crime differences between the jurisdictions.
James said violence described in the series should underscore the need for a separate state gun court to better track and prosecute firearms crimes.
“We must get serious about erasing the gun culture that is too pervasive on our city’s streets,” James said.
Others cautioned against moving quickly to change laws or the criminal justice system.
“The practice of law is not an exact science, but it works most of the time,” said Gwendolyn Grant, president of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City. “That is why it is important to allow judges to have some discretion in sentencing. I don’t think mandatory sentencing is always the best course of action.”
The Rev. Wallace S. Hartsfield II, senior pastor of Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, said he understood Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker when, in the series, she said that prosecutors occasionally have to make probation deals with unsavory defendants to put more culpable co-defendants in prison.
But Hartsfield said he was torn on the question because he wants to see more violent criminals in prison.
“This is a very complicated issue for which I do not have a hard and fast response,” Hartsfield said.
But if a problem exists, it also is within the public’s power to fix, noted Missouri Rep. Galen Higdon, a member of the House Judiciary Committee. Prosecutors and judges all ultimately answer to voters, he said.
“The people have to understand, they run this state,” Higdon said. “If the people are not happy with the representative, or the judge, or the prosecutor, or whoever they elect, then they need to voice that.”
The Star’s Dave Helling contributed to this report.
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