Recent Missouri Editorials
The Kansas City Star, June 24
Mayor-elect Quinton Lucas said he’d pardon those with marijuana convictions. He should
If Kansas City Mayor-elect Quinton Lucas keeps one of his campaign promises, our city could become the latest in the nation to clear marijuana possession convictions en masse.
Last week, Lucas, who holds the 3rd District at-large seat on the City Council, decisively defeated fellow council member Jolie Justus in the race to replace Mayor Sly James. He campaigned on a commonsense criminal justice reform platform, among other issues.
Lucas pledged to use the pardon power of the mayor’s office to wipe out all stand-alone convictions for minor municipal marijuana violations.
“It’s a question of fairness,” Lucas told The Star.
He’s right. And Lucas should make good on this promise.
Thousands of marijuana-related convictions in Kansas City Municipal Court could be dismissed, depending on how far back the pardons reach. Close to 8,900 marijuana-related cases have been disposed at the municipal level since 1998. Some are stand-alone. Others are not.
As of last week, there were 2,736 pending marijuana cases.
While some voters might be surprised to learn that Kansas City’s mayor can issue pardons, Lucas, who takes office Aug. 1, will indeed have that power. As the city charter states, “The mayor shall have authority to pardon any person convicted of violating any ordinance of this city.”
Although recreational marijuana use is not legal in Missouri, voters have sent a strong message that attitudes about pot have changed. And there is little political will to use scarce law enforcement resources to prosecute nonviolent marijuana cases.
In 2017, Kansas City voters overwhelmingly approved a new ordinance that lowered penalties in city court for people caught with small amounts of marijuana. Violators are ticketed and pay nominal fines and court costs without the threat of jail time.
As a result, there have been fewer cases filed in Municipal Court, and more people have been convicted on amended charges instead of marijuana charges.
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker announced in November that her office would no longer prosecute most marijuana possession cases. And last year, Missouri voters also approved the use of medical marijuana for certain health issues.
The changes enacted in the last couple years have been needed steps toward reforming the criminal justice system. But what about people arrested on low-level marijuana charges in Kansas City prior to 2017? The arrests and convictions can stay on their records for years and impact their prospects for jobs, loans and housing.
“It’s a no-brainer issue,” Lucas said. “It’s only fair to eliminate those barriers.”
So, what does reform look like? Lucas is researching what other cities have done, but there are templates that could provide guidance. It will take time and personnel, but it will get done, Lucas said. He wants to limit the administrative work and the costs associated with expungement as much as possible.
In San Francisco, 9,362 people will be eligible to have their old marijuana-related criminal offenses dismissed and sealed under a plan announced by the city’s district attorney. Denver’s Turn Over a New Leaf program doesn’t require applicants to pay for any part of the dismissal or sealing process. In Seattle, judges vacated more than 500 marijuana possession convictions last September, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s plan to pardon those with misdemeanor marijuana convictions could clear thousands more.
A spokeswoman for Kansas City Municipal Court declined to comment on whether Presiding Judge Corey Carter or Presiding Judge Pro Tem Ardie Bland would be opposed to dismissing past convictions. “It is not the place of the judiciary to comment on the actions that may be taken by the Mayor, Prosecutor’s Office and/or police,” she wrote in an email.
In Kansas City and across the country, the criminalization of marijuana has taken a heavy toll, particularly on minorities. Lucas has an important opportunity to undo some of the damage done by the “war on drugs” and allow low-level offenders to make a fresh start.
Dismissing nonviolent marijuana convictions is one small but consequential step toward reforming the criminal justice system at the local level.
Jefferson City News-Tribune, June 23
Parson has served Missouri well in his first year
All in all, Gov. Mike Parson has served Missouri well during his first year in office.
When Parson took office June 1, 2018, the state of the state wasn’t good. The previous governor, Eric Greitens, had just resigned amid scandals. The Legislature had just completed a session in which it was sidetracked by a probe and the possibility that it would consider impeaching Greitens. Confidence in state government was flagging.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of communications between (my) lieutenant governor’s office and the (Greitens) governor’s office,” Parson told the News Tribune during a wide-ranging, 40-minute interview we wrote about last Sunday. “That day when I took office, we started walking through this entire complex, and it was empty desk after empty desk after empty desk.”
Parson, a lifelong cattle farmer, small business owner and former sheriff, had a big challenge to assemble quickly a staff and calm the troubled waters. We believe he’s succeeded with a leadership style that prioritizes hard work and Midwestern values over flashy political posturing.
Among other things, Parson has:
. Streamlined workforce development, creating a one-stop-shop approach that will help workers attain needed skills in our state.
. Guided a $300 million infrastructure package through the legislative process to help with needed bridge repairs.
. Worked to protect the lives of the unborn by signing a controversial bill that criminalizes abortion after eight weeks of pregnancy. Time will tell whether the new law meets constitutional muster, but Parson’s action stays true to his pro-life values.
. Collaborated with local and federal agencies alike to deal with crises stemming from recent tornadoes and flooding. (The morning after the tornado in Jefferson City, Parson was assessing damage along Ellis Boulevard with members of his team.)
. Worked cooperatively with the Legislature on the state’s $30 billion budget so that he was able to sign the budget bills with no line-item vetoes or withholds.
. Convinced lawmakers to include money in the state budget for state employee pay raises, especially increasing pay for corrections officers in state prisons.
Parson isn’t perfect; we’ve taken issue with some of his actions. But we also believe he has done much good for out state in the past year, not the least of which is steadying our state in a time of upheaval.
One question left unanswered by Parson is whether he will seek election to the office that he inherited last year. We believe he’s served our state well and would welcome him as a candidate in 2020.
St. Joseph News-Press, June 19
Watching prisoners, watching the budget
You can’t blame corrections officers for displaying healthy skepticism about the pay boost provided to these law enforcement professionals who serve in the state prison system.
Working in difficult conditions, sometimes inside the state’s maximum-security prisons, these officers must have long ago shed a sense of wide-eyed naiveté about lots of things, including promises from politicians.
So when Gov. Mike Parson announces what the Department of Corrections called the biggest pay increase for prison workers in the state’s history, the officers aren’t off base in showing appreciation but also asking if the state will fix the systemic problems that caused chronic understaffing and low pay relative to other states.
“Is it enough money to draw people in to work there? No, I’m not sure it is,” Gary Gross, with the Missouri Corrections Officers Association, told our reporter.
The state got into this mess with a prison-building spree in the 1990s, part of the three-strikes-and-you’re-out mentality of getting tough on crime. Understaffing became a statewide issue as the inmate population grew faster than the budget. In smaller towns like Cameron, the state found it especially difficult to hire enough employees for two prisons.
The pendulum has now swung the other way, with states eager to save costs on incarceration and explore flexibility in sentencing. Some of the money for pay raises comes from the planned closing of the maximum-security Crossroads Correctional Center, but corrections officers are correct to ask if this comes at a steep cost.
We all should be asking that question.
Gross wants to make sure inmates aren’t moved to a lower security level simply to enable the money-saving consolidation, a move that could put inmates, workers and possibly the general public at risk. Buchanan County’s prosecutor has mentioned similar concerns about the tension between prosecutors who want to deter drug offenses and violent crime and politicians who are seeking cost savings.
Local officials should be concerned as well, following news that Missouri remains millions of dollars behind on money owed for housing state prisoners at county jails, including more than $500,000 owed as of early this month to Buchanan County. The state should see late payments to counties, which house inmates before transfer to the state prison system, as part of the same problem. County jails, after all, also face their own issues with funding and staffing.
A move to shore up funding for corrections workers is long overdue, but the initiative makes no sense if it comes at the expense of county-level employees or public safety. Corrections officers, and all local officials, are wise to keep a watchful eye on what happens down the road.