Jackson County shows too much leniency for violent criminals

08/06/2014 6:49 PM

08/06/2014 6:49 PM

Law-abiding citizens expect that people who commit violent acts and harm others will suffer severe consequences. The tolerance for second chances, like probation, is limited.

But probation for crimes as serious as armed robbery and assault, voluntary manslaughter and even murder is granted often in Jackson County Circuit Court, a detailed analysis by The Star has revealed. Some hardened criminals are let off the hook multiple times.

The results include heartbroken families, cynicism toward the system and reluctance by citizens to cooperate as witnesses for fear that defendants will remain in the community. That reluctance, in turn, exacerbates the problem. Prosecutors and judges often settle for probation or short “shock time” sentences because it is the only route in a weak case to a guilty plea.

Criminal justice is not a cut-and-dried endeavor, least of all for the people charged with carrying it out.

“This is a tough business,” said Jean Peters Baker, the Jackson County prosecutor. “Sometimes I’ve got to use a bad guy with a bad record to get a worse guy.”

Indeed, The Star’s report cited examples where persons with long criminal records were given deals of probation in exchange for testimony that earned a co-conspirator substantial prison time.

At times there are no good choices. The St. Louis prosecutor’s office would rather dismiss cases when they fall apart for lack of witness cooperation or other reasons than award probation, hoping for a break down the road. But cases rarely get stronger with time, and a dismissed case doesn’t make a community safe or bring relief to grieving or fearful families.

At a time when Kansas City needs to be intent on reducing violent crime, however, there does appear to be a culture in Jackson County Circuit Court that looks too much like leniency. Some problems:

Many judges are too quick to grant continuances. Unnecessary delays make it harder to hold on to cooperative witnesses and hold cases together.

Violent criminals who violate their probation are sometimes given more probation. That leaves the impression that there are no serious consequences.

Judges are not always willing to consider input from victims and family members when meting out sentences, or in some cases to even factor in a defendants’ criminal record. That is simply a disservice to the community.

The chronic shortage of jail space in Jackson County forces judges and prosecutors into hard choices.

There are indications that newer judges, many of whom come from a prosecuting background, are more intent on awarding serious prison time. And a new collaboration among local and federal police and prosecutors, the Kansas City No Violence Alliance, is focused on finding ways to get violent perpetrators locked up.

That is a welcome initiative. Overly harsh or arbitrary sentences bring their own set of problems, but the community needs assurance that violent offenders will pay for the suffering they have caused.

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