Senate Bill 600 went through plenty of changes during its march toward final passage in what proved to be an extraordinary and bizarre legislative session. But the overall intent of the Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer’s legislation never wavered: to make Missouri’s streets safer by keeping some of the most violent, repeat offenders behind bars.
At one point, it passed the Senate on a 27-2 vote. The measure gained final approval in the House with a tally of 97-51.
What’s changed is the public’s perception of crime, punishment and law enforcement in the wake of another unarmed black man dying in police custody. The death of George Floyd lit a fuse of protest against injustice and a re-evaluation of policing in the United States.
It generated a much-needed national debate, but it also created an aura of skepticism for a bill that adds second-degree murder to the list of offenses that are not eligible for probation in Missouri. The measure also creates a new offense of vehicle hijacking and enhances the sentences for the use of a weapon while committing a violent crime or for possessing a firearm illegally.
Critics call this measure a flawed approach to criminal justice and urge Gov. Mike Parson to veto it. They would be correct if it was the only approach, but it is not. It does little to reverse reforms approved last year that seek to ease prison overcrowding and acknowledge that non-violent offenders, especially those with drug offenses, are better off being reintegrated into society.
That does not change. This legislation deals with the other side of the coin: the small number of repeat offenders who cycle through the criminal justice system and commit violent crime that impacts quality of life in Missouri’s cities and rural areas.
Some say SB 600 would necessitate the building of new prisons, something Missouri can ill-afford during the coronavirus recession, but that should be subject to future appropriation and the success of last year’s reforms.
In the end, Luetkemeyer’s bill does not address the core issue in the current national debate, which is how police treat people before there’s evidence of a crime being committed, let alone a question of probation eligibility or maximum punishments. This is an issue to deal with in future sessions, but it is outside the scope of what’s on the governor’s desk.
It would be an understatement to say that Luetkeymeyer’s tough-on-crime approach appears out of sync with the zeitgeist. Yet it is possible to square this legislation with the overall mood in the country, to attempt to keep violent criminals off the street and to demand an end to racism and a profound change in the way law enforcement interacts with minorities.