Gardner and Bell

St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell (left) and St. Louis circuit attorney Kimberly M. Gardner stand with other black St. Louis politicians as they are honored during St. Louis University and Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis' annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Tribute at the Busch Student Center on campus at St. Louis University on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

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Updated at 6 a.m. Tuesday with reactions.

JEFFERSON CITY — A Platte County Republican is pushing legislation to give the Missouri attorney general’s office authority to prosecute gang-related crimes that St. Louis and Kansas City area prosecutors decide not to pursue. The bill also would impose harsher punishments on members of criminal street gangs.

“What we need to be doing in Missouri to address violent crimes systemically is to make sure we’re addressing organized crime systemically as well, and that’s what the bill is designed to do,” said Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville.

Luetkemeyer chairs the Senate’s Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, which heard testimony Monday on his “Missouri Criminal Street Gangs Prevention Act.”

The bill would require the prosecuting attorneys in St. Louis, St. Louis County and Jackson County to act within 60 days of receiving a referral on a gang-related crime from law enforcement.

If those offices decline to prosecute, law enforcement could request that they reconsider. If they still refuse, the attorney general’s office would have the authority to pursue the case.

Representatives of St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell and St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner did not speak at the hearing.

In a statement provided to the Post-Dispatch late Monday, Gardner said: “Although we appreciate the Missouri Legislature’s attempt to offer additional prosecution options, the chosen approach is an unbridled attempt to usurp the authority of the elected prosecutors in Kansas City, St. Louis County, and St. Louis City in a legislative overreach. This effort sets these three jurisdictions apart from the rest of the state of Missouri by allowing the Attorney General to second guess elected local prosecutors in these selected counties. This should not be permitted.”

On Facebook, Bell's chief of staff Sam Alton also blasted the proposed legislation, calling it an “example of racism. Pure and simple.” 

At the hearing Monday, Platte County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Zahnd testified in support of the legislation on behalf of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

While the prosecutors’ association would prefer that the provision giving jurisdiction to the attorney general not be included, he said the organization did not actively oppose the bill.

Zahnd also said the proposed harsher punishments would elevate the prosecution of criminal gang activity to a level that reflects the seriousness of the crime.

Under current law, participating in gang activity can be punished with a year in county jail or one to three years in state prison. Luetkemeyer’s legislation would make it a Class B felony, which carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

Not a single case has been prosecuted under current statutes addressing criminal gangs, Luetkemeyer said, because the sentences are so light and because it is a difficult crime to prove.

His legislation would change the state’s criminal conspiracy law to make it more closely mirror federal law, which allows multiple defendants to be prosecuted at the same time in an individual case, Luetkemeyer said.

Sam Panettiere, a lobbyist representing the Kansas City mayor’s office, said the legislation would be “another valuable tool in the toolbox” and that it would help the city combat its violent crime rates.

Representatives of the Missouri Sheriffs’ Association, Kansas City Police Department and the Missouri Police Chiefs Association also spoke in support of the legislation on Monday. No one spoke in opposition.

The legislation is Senate Bill 602.

This article originally ran on stltoday.com.

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