We trust that most Missourians would agree with the emerging political consensus to reduce the cost of incarceration. On the state and federal level, sentencing reform enjoys a rare level bipartisan support.
But many of those Missourians who want to reduce prison spending also want to keep communities safe and punish criminals. There lies the rub. Is it possible to do both?
Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer gave voice to these conflicting goals when he discussed his legislative priorities for 2020. The Republican, who represents Platte and Buchanan counties, decried “catch-and-release” policies and suggested a greater focus on laws that ensure violent criminals are kept behind bars.
Some may see this stance as out of step with prevailing political winds, but Luetkemeyer correctly senses that crime remains an issue at the forefront of voters’ minds heading into next year’s legislative session. Those who view sentencing reform as a social justice issue would be wise to remember that some of the political support seems transactional, with Republicans willing to consider a different approach while keeping an eye on whether communities become safer in the end.
It’s too early to tell if some of the changes, like a reduced emphasis on mandatory minimum sentences for certain offenses, are having the desired effects.
But what’s clear, in our view, is that the public hasn’t stopped worrying about crime or demanding that policymakers put it at the top of the agenda. If voters say it’s a problem, then it’s a problem.
Look at St. Joseph, where no crime issue resonates as much as vehicle theft. Anyone whose car or truck is stolen would envision a punishment that results in years of breaking larger rocks into smaller rocks.
It’s a nice thought, but a person convicted of auto theft, or certainly of a lesser charge of vehicle tampering, could be considered a non-violent offender. That means a likelihood of faster release into the community. For the typical crime victim, this can be a difficult pill to swallow.
St. Joseph Police Chief Chris Connally referenced this dilemma at a neighborhood watch meeting last week, where residents gathered to vent frustration about vehicle thefts. The chief said state government wants communities to solve property crimes and leave jails for violent criminals.
Clearly, public fatigue set in after years of three-strikes-and-you’re out sentencing laws, which is why elected officials are willing to consider alternatives.
But at some point, a little buyer’s remorse sets in if the the pendulum swings too far the other way. Lawmakers like Luetkemeyer are right to apply a little counter pressure on this trend.