Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Lobbyist Money Help
By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»COL292.PRB - Getting Away with Murder
Recently, I was asked by a Missouri newspaper publisher about an effort to convert from part-time to full-time the prosecutor in his rural county.
It raised an issue I examined decades earlier in an investigative series on law enforcement problems in our state's smaller counties.
My series explored the problems that arose for both law enforcement and prosecution in counties that did not enjoy the budgets of Missouri's larger counties.
The title "Getting Away with Murder" arose from the action by a rural, ill-trained county sheriff who responded to the shooting of a close friend.
To reassure his dying friend, the sheriff told him that he would be fine. Then, the dying victim named his assailant.
But the case against the assailant he named was thrown out because the sheriff had not been trained to realize that for a "dying declaration" to be admissible in court, the victim must believe that he or she actually is dying.
In another rural county, a prosecuting attorney told me he had to let free a low-level felony suspect held in the state of Texas because his county lacked staff for a trip to Texas to pick up the suspect.
Over the years, there have been various legislative efforts to address these budget problems facing law enforcement in smaller-population, rural counties. Lawmakers also have imposed training requirements for newly elected sheriffs.
But the only comprehensive solution to the problems facing rural law enforcement went nowhere when it was proposed decades ago.
The idea was to create a state criminal investigation bureau like the Kansas Bureau of Investigation that gained worldwide attention in Truman Capote's book "In Cold Blood."
His book told the story about how the KBI had the resources to solve the Clutter family murders.
A KBI for Missouri died because of opposition from some rural sheriffs who did not want their toes stepped on by a state agency.
Since then, Missouri's Highway Patrol has taken on an increasing criminal investigation role, but nothing like the KBI.
But that hasn't addressed the larger issue involving the price we pay for dividing services among the state's 114 counties and St. Louis city.
For example, might it be more efficient and cost-effective to have a chief prosecutor for each of the state's 46 judicial circuits rather 115?
And, what about a centralized law-enforcement agency for each circuit?
The costs we taxpayers pay because of the division of services by county extends beyond law enforcement.
For example, Missouri law requires a separate Social Services Department office in each county -- although Jay Nixon's administration somewhat evaded the issue.
Originally, Missouri did not have this proliferation of counties.
It was in the later 1800s as the state's population grew that counties were split into our current multitude of counties.
But our state's obsession with costly local control extends beyond just counties.
Missouri has more than 500 school districts. Some are so small that more than one-half-dozen districts have less than 50 students. The smallest district reported to the state just 19 students while the largest reported 25,800.
Imagine the administrative costs for each district.
Over the years, more than one education advocate in Missouri's legislature has agreed about budget problems and limited educational services in smaller districts.
But, I've also heard passionate arguments from other rural legislators about the value of local control that is more responsive to local, rather than regional needs and concerns.
I suspect another factor might be pride in the local football team.
As someone who has spent much of his adult life in one of the smallest state capitals in the U.S., I understand the desire for local control.
There's something to be said about local voter control over such critical governmental issues as law enforcement and education.
And over the years, there have been successful steps taken for collaborative efforts between fragmented governmental units.
But I've wondered whether we're just putting a band aide on the price we pay in taking to the extreme our desire for local, voter control.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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