Kansas City leaders chose their words carefully this week when making the case to state lawmakers on the need to speed up prosecution of violent gun crimes.
Too often, they argued, violent offenders end up back on the street awaiting a trial that could be months or years away. Fearing retribution, witnesses clam up and convictions become elusive.
Offenders end up being picked up again on similar crimes, and the cycle starts anew.
Their solution: Pass legislation creating a specialized court docket in Jackson County dedicated solely to crimes committed with guns.
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But don’t call it a gun court.
It’s an “armed offender docket.”
“The focus of this isn’t on the gun,” said Rep. Kevin Corlew, a Kansas City Republican sponsoring the legislation. “The focus is on the offender, the person using a weapon unlawfully. This in no way goes after lawful users of guns. It’s meant for people who are breaking the law with a gun, who are involved in crimes involving guns.”
That distinction becomes important in navigating the Republican-dominated Missouri General Assembly, where legislators are loath to consider anything that could be viewed as a restriction on gun rights.
Few have quarreled with lawmakers on the gun issue over the years more than Kansas City Mayor Sly James, who has argued the legislature’s constant push to relax gun laws makes curbing urban gun violence more difficult.
But in this instance, James believes he and gun-rights-supporting legislators should be able to find common ground.
“This idea is really more in tune with one of the constant criticisms of those who promote the proliferation of guns, which is: Enforce the laws we’ve got,” James said. “That’s what we want to do. We’re not talking about taking away anybody’s guns. We’re talking about dealing with people who are accused of or convicted of using weapons in committing crimes.”
James, along with representatives from the Kansas City Police Department and Jackson County prosecutor’s office, made the trip to the Missouri Capitol on Monday to make their case to a House committee for the legislation. The bill would require Jackson County Circuit Court to dedicate judges and manpower to a special docket that would handle all matters related to weapons offenses and robbery in the first degree.
To defray the costs, offenders would pay an extra $30 fee.
A similar idea was proposed two years ago for the St. Louis area. Sen. Eric Schmitt, a St. Louis County Republican who sponsored the measure at the time, said opposition from city judges ultimately sealed its fate.
The specialized docket was also a recommendation that emerged from the Missouri attorney general’s Urban Crime Summit in 2013.
James said the legislation would essentially bring the judicial branch into the Kansas City No Violence Alliance, a coalition of political, law enforcement, community, academic, clergy and social service leaders working to identify the most active criminal groups and targeting them for increased police scrutiny while offering social service help to those who want to leave crime behind.
Last year, there were 79 homicides in Kansas City, the lowest number since 1972.
“We’re seeing progress,” James said, “but the one missing piece is the courts.”
More rapid resolution of armed criminal offenses is a key component that Kansas City’s efforts are lacking, said Maj. Joe McHale, commander for the violent crime enforcement division of the Kansas City Police Department and project manager for the Kansas City No Violence Alliance.
“The consequences have to be swift and they have to be certain,” McHale said. If they aren’t, he said, “the offenders will figure out our game, and we will lose the battle.”
If implemented, an armed offender docket would “expedite the process, so that justice would happen quicker and more consistently across the line,” said Caleb Clifford, assistant Jackson County prosecutor.
The docket would expire in 2021 without reauthorization from the legislature. Meanwhile, the University of Missouri-Kansas City would study the program and produce annual reports “to ensure we’re seeing decreased case times and increase conviction rates,” Corlew said.
“We’re calling it a pilot project,” he said. “We want to take this and not only implement it but study it and make sure the objectives are being met.”
Other cities, including Philadelphia and Birmingham, Ala., have seen positive results after they’ve created specialized gun dockets, Corlew said.
“It also sends a clear message to the community,” he said, “that the prosecution of violent crimes is a high priority.”
Not everyone is convinced.
“Putting them all in one docket, I can’t conceive of why that would be necessary unless they intend to punish gun owners for being gun owners,” said Kevin Jamison, a Gladstone attorney and president of the Western Missouri Shooters Alliance.
Whitney O’Daniel, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, told the committee that Corlew’s bill still needed tweaking.
“I’m not here in opposition to the bill,” O’Daniel said. “But it still needs a lot of work.”
He said his major concern is that the bill leaves too much open to interpretation by judges and prosecutors. The bill simply refers to the state law defining gun-related crimes, which O’Daniel said could mean even a small offense could land a person in the armed offender docket.
“Something as simple as having your firearm exposed by accident could land you in this court,” O’Daniel said. “You’re at the will of a prosecutor.”
Corlew said he’s more than willing to try to address the NRA’s concerns, including listing exactly which gun-related crimes can land a person in an armed offender docket.
“I’m open to tightening up the language to make sure we’re really addressing the crimes that are plaguing our community,” he said. “We’re addressing a problem with violent crime without restricting gun ownership.”