It’s no secret that for years, Missouri’s largest cities have earned spots high atop the list of America’s most dangerous cities. Just last month, a USA Today study of FBI crime data ranked Missouri’s largest cities — St. Louis and Kansas City — as the fifth and sixth most dangerous in the country, with St. Louis ranking No. 1 in homicide rates adjusted for population. Our state’s third largest city, Springfield, ranked No. 14.
These troubling rankings, along with the rise in violence in our cities, have sparked intense debate in Jefferson City about how to deal with Missouri’s violent crime problem. If you ask Democrats, most will say the answer is stricter gun laws. But those proposals fail to distinguish between law-abiding gun owners — people who are the vast majority of gun owners in our state — and those who use guns to commit crimes.
In my own party, the focus has been on expanding educational and economic opportunities in hopes that people will be directed away from a life of crime. While those are worthy goals we all support, they are long-term solutions that fail to address immediately the staggering problem of violence in our state’s major cities.
So what can be done?
In 2014, The Kansas City Star wrote a series of articles exposing a pattern in Jackson County where violent offenders who committed robberies, assaults and even murders were routinely granted probation, not spending a single day in prison. Unsurprisingly, many of them re-offended after release. Readers and lawmakers alike were surprised to learn that Missouri is one of a few states that allow probation for serious violent crimes, including second-degree murder. Not much has changed in the past five years, and our cities continue to be plagued by violence.
I’ve spent the past several months talking with law enforcement, mayors and prosecutors across the state to find a solution, but first, we must home in on the problem. It’s clear one of the causes of rising violent crime is that dangerous felons believe there is no consequence for their actions.
During our last legislative session, there was great focus on getting “smarter” on so-called nonviolent crime. The frequent refrain was, “Prison is for people we’re scared of, not people we’re mad at.” What was lost in the conversation is that in some places, including our two largest cities, the justice system has stopped locking up many of the “people we’re scared of.” Therein lies the problem — and the solution.
We must shift our focus toward public policies that deter people from committing violence and remove violent offenders from our streets for more than just weeks at a time. We must acknowledge that the proper place for violent criminals is in prison, not on probation. Just like mass incarceration for minor crime is misguided, so too is mass release for violent crime.
Without commonsense reforms to Missouri’s sentencing laws and criminal code, to give prosecutors and law enforcement more tools to fight violent crimes, our cities will continue to languish on the list of the country’s most dangerous.
To begin addressing these issues, I will propose legislation that strengthens penalties for gun-related felonies, provides enhanced tools to local law enforcement to prosecute gangs and other organized criminal enterprises that breed violent crime, and reforms Missouri’s outdated law allowing probation for certain dangerous felonies.
With these and other reforms, we will begin the hard work of reclaiming our cities from violence.
Tony Luetkemeyer, a Republican from Parkville, represents District 34 in the Missouri Senate, where he serves as chairman of the Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.