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Recent Missouri editorials

June 20, 2017

The Kansas City Star, June 17

New Missouri law undercuts police efforts to stop drunk driving

Missouri is set to become an embarrassing outlier in the decades-long struggle against drunk driving.

Beginning in July, Missouri law enforcement will be allowed to spend only $1 of federal funding on sobriety checkpoints. Every other dollar available — about $19 million — will go toward alternate measures, with a heavy push toward unannounced saturation patrols that put officers on the lookout for impaired drivers.

Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Shell Knob, sponsored the newly passed legislation after looking at data provided by the Missouri Department of Transportation and concluding that saturation patrols yield more arrests per dollar spent than checkpoints.

But that’s a limited view of the data. What Fitzpatrick didn’t take into account is the deterrent effect of sobriety checkpoints, which is difficult to precisely measure.

In fact, an explanation that Fitzpatrick and other supporters have offered for all but dismantling this current police practice is one of the key reasons checkpoints are effective.

Supporters of the change to state law point to social media. They believe that too many people learn about the checkpoints via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and then simply avoid the checkpoint area.

Yes, some do.

But when those alerts go out, many people also think twice about drinking and driving. They set up a designated driver. They take Uber instead. DUI checkpoints are successful in part because they do compel some people to change their behavior before they ever get behind the wheel.

That’s an overriding goal of checkpoints. Not simply racking up more arrests per dollar spent. There is also a huge benefit to society in deterring people from driving after drinking. Police departments have typically used both saturation patrols and checkpoints, which are most effective when they are deployed frequently and are publicized.

The state’s timing is terrible. After years of decline, drunk driving fatalities increased slightly in 2015, with 10,265 deaths in the U.S. Many fear the death toll will rise again when the 2016 data are finalized.

Missouri now joins just 12 other states that either prohibit or choose not to use sobriety checkpoints. Critics of checkpoints tend to make the same limited arguments cited in Missouri to shift funding to saturation patrols. Opponents have also raised questions about the fairness of stopping drivers randomly, an argument that is undercut by a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision finding checkpoints constitutional.

At checkpoints, law enforcement officers don’t stop every car, just every third or fourth, for example. It’s a random check unless someone gives officers another reason to think they are breaking the law. And it’s a strategy that allows officers to make a visible statement against drunk driving and also find people with outstanding warrants and other infractions.

Fitzpatrick might think that he has done Missourians a favor. Yes, drivers will be far less likely to be momentarily delayed by a sobriety checkpoint because the state has precluded police from using federal dollars for the operation.

But by removing this tool from law enforcement’s toolbox, he may have just increased our chances of being hit by a drunk driver.

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The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 16

Are Missouri’s foster care families being set up for failure?

Being entrusted with the lives of children abandoned or uncared for by their parents is a difficult job that requires patience, care and dedication. The Missouri Department of Social Services might be setting up many foster children and caregivers for failure.

A federal lawsuit, filed by St. Louis University law school legal clinics and two child advocacy groups, alleges the agency dopes up kids on too many prescription drugs, at too young an age, and fails to provide foster parents with adequate information about the medication.

The class-action lawsuit on behalf of five children, ages 2 to 14, says about 30 percent of children in state foster care or group homes are overprescribed powerful psychotropic drugs that most of them do not need. The rate of overprescription is twice the national rate of 18 percent for such a population.

That means roughly 4,000 of the 13,000 children in Missouri’s foster care system are zoned out on drugs intended for psychotic behaviors but that are being used to treat diagnoses like conduct disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The lawsuit alleges that the agency is withholding crucial information needed to ensure that only the children who need such drugs are receiving them.

Doctors are not able to verify that treatment is occurring as prescribed, and foster parents can’t provide informed consent for care when they lack basic information about the children in their homes, the suit contends.

Sara Bartosz, deputy director of litigation strategy at Children’s Rights, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit, said children are passed from one caregiver and one medical provider to the next without their medical records accompanying them. Bartosz says other states routinely provide these safeguards for children, according to Post-Dispatch reporter Robert Patrick.

Using medications off-label — meaning for purposes other than what they have been approved for by the Food and Drug Administration — can pose risks of “psychosis, seizures, irreversible movement disorders, suicidal thoughts, aggression, weight gain, organ damage, and other life-threatening conditions,” the lawsuit says.

Bartosz also said the inadequate medical information means children are sometimes taking multiple psychotropic medications and antipsychotic drugs that can cause myriad health and behavioral problems. The lawsuit gave as an example a 12-year-old girl who was handed to a relative with her medications wrapped in tissue paper and no instructions on their use. The girl had a “severe reaction” to getting a wrong dose of the medicine and was hospitalized for six days.

Few children are more vulnerable that these. Someone has to look out for them.

That’s supposed to be the job of the state’s foster care system. These children don’t have wealthy political donors or highly paid lobbyists to advocate for them in Jefferson City, but there’s no justification for letting them fall through the cracks.

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The Joplin Globe, June 15

Wrong-headed stunt

Taking a video of yourself cutting off the head of a live chicken, disemboweling it then posting it to your Facebook page in a quest to make a political point seems like a pretty sick stunt.

Especially when the video was made by a member of our own Missouri House of Representatives who represents folks who live just down the road from us.

The motivation behind the video created by Rep. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, is still unclear, except he was dressing chickens on his farm when he received word that Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens was calling a second special session and Moon would be interrupted in his work on the farm.

From what we can gather from his video (don’t watch it if you’ve never seen someone kill and dress a chicken before), Moon was sending a message to Greitens about respecting the time of state lawmakers.

The newly elected Republican governor had chided lawmakers for failing to pass legislation during the state’s annual legislative period and referred to lawmakers as “career politicians” whose “summer vacations” he planned to cancel with a special session, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The session Greitens called is underway to advance legislation to create new abortion regulations, and Moon was annoyed by the governor’s language. Moon, an anti-abortion legislator, was also frustrated by the legislation being reviewed because he doesn’t think it goes far enough.

Here’s what he said in his video:

“God gave us, man, dominion over life. He allows us to raise animals properly and care for them and then process them for food, so we can sustain life. And that’s what I’m doing here with this chicken. So we’ve been called back to this special session for the primary purpose of supporting life, protecting the unborn specifically.”

“I think we need to get to the heart of the matter here,” he said before pulling the bird’s heart out of its body.

Moon later said the video wasn’t about abortion but was directed at the governor’s call for a special session.

We do agree with Moon that calling these special sessions during the summer is frustrating especially because both the Senate and the House have Republican majorities, and Greitens is a Republican as well. There is no reason they couldn’t have accomplished what they needed to accomplish during the regular session. It’s an extra expense that Missouri taxpayers don’t need on their plates right now.

As for Moon, we would ask him to do the work he was elected to do.

The video was an unnecessary stunt.

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The Jefferson City News-Tribune, June 18

Another backward step for Corrections

It was disheartening to hear a Missouri parole board member and a Corrections department employee were making a farce out of parole hearings.

The revelation comes at a time when the department is trying to heal from a credibility crisis that came to light late last year. An investigation by a Kansas City weekly newspaper found a culture of sexual harassment, racial discrimination and harassment by co-workers — and retaliation by supervisors for speaking out.

It examined more than 60 lawsuits against the department and also found the state spent more than $7.5 million on settlements and judgments between 2012 and 2016, related to the allegations.

Anne Precythe, the new department director, has said addressing the claims of harassment is a top priority.

Now this.

The Missouri Department of Corrections said Donald Ruzicka, a Missouri parole board member who reportedly admits concocting a word game played during questioning in parole hearings, has resigned.

Ruzicka, a Republican, is a former state representative from Mount Vernon. He and the employee, who was not named, played the game on occasions in hearings throughout summer 2016, the report says.

The Associated Press reported a Department of Corrections inspector general’s report said Ruzicka and an employee played a game during parole hearings in which they earned points for incorporating song titles and unusual words — such as “manatee” and “hootenanny” — into their questioning.

The report said the officials, who occasionally dressed alike, awarded themselves an extra point if they could get the inmates also to say the words.

Board Chairman Kenny Jones — R-California, who is a former sheriff and former state representative — said in a statement last Monday “members of the board must be held to a higher standard.”

We wholeheartedly agree. For inmates, parole hearings are their lives — they’re the difference between continued incarceration or freedom. For communities, parole hearings determine whether inmates have served their debt and are fit to be integrated back into society.

In a column last week, Washington Post syndicated columnist George Will made the point graduates from New York State’s Sing Sing prison’s Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison program have a 1 percent recidivism rate. But overall, prisons are failing to accomplish lasting correction, he said, as more than half of released prisoners are arrested again in the first year.

Parole hearings are another important component to such lasting correction. We hope this was an isolated incident and not a continuation of the problematic culture that we hoped was in the past.

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