Until five years ago, many Missouri counties had crime reduction funds. These funds were built up from fees collected from convicted criminals who received suspended sentences or probation. The fees were typically negotiated as part of a plea bargain. The money was used mainly by sheriff's departments to purchase equipment and for anti-narcotics programs and for other law local law enforcement needs.
But in 1998, a judicial commission said there was no legal or constitutional authority for such funds. As a result, the Missouri Legislature has passed enabling legislation three times. Gov. Mel Carnahan vetoed a bill in 1999, citing concerns it would allow some defendants to buy their way out of prison terms. There were drafting errors in the 2001 version of the bill, and passage was invalidated. This year, legislators almost unanimously (one senator voted no) passed a version of the bill that appeared to address all the previous concerns.
But Gov. Bob Holden vetoed the bill, claiming it violated the state's constitution, which requires all criminal fines to be used for education -- a concern he never raised during the session as the bill was being debated. Legislators say the crime fund fees are not fines. Moreover, the fees are voluntary -- although convicted criminals have an incentive to pay them if it results in an acceptable plea bargain.
With the near-unanimous support the bill received in the regular session, it would seem that an override in next month's special session would be a given. But there have only been seven overrides in state history. Super-majorities are needed for an override, and Democrats in both legislative chambers will be reluctant to overturn the will of a governor of the same party.
But they should. This bill is a good piece of legislation that would help budget-pinched sheriff's departments. Let's hope enough Democratic senators and representatives have the political stamina to do what's right.