Gov. Holden touts county crime fund bill

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A year after vetoing a bill aimed at making criminals help pay for law enforcement expenses, Gov. Bob Holden claimed passage of a similar proposal as one of this year's legislative successes.

Southeast Missouri lawmakers have pushed the measure for six years and successfully steered it through the Missouri Legislature three times without it becoming law. Two earlier versions were vetoed, and passage of a third was nullified on a technicality.

In rejecting last year's bill, Holden said it violated the provision of the Missouri Constitution that earmarks proceeds from criminal fines for public schools. With input from the governor, state Rep. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, this year crafted language intended to overcome that constitutional flaw.

Although Holden intends to sign the bill, given its checkered past, supporters could be forgiven for crossing their fingers in the hope that no problems that could force another veto are discovered during the customary review process.

Cape Girardeau County Sheriff John Jordan, who has been a top lobbyist for the measure, said he is confident the bill, which legislators approved last week, will soon become law.

Jordan estimates the legislation will generate $50,000 a year for Cape Girardeau County.

Under the bill, individual county commissions could opt to create "law enforcement restitution funds" that would be financed by fees of up to $300 paid by criminal defendants who plead guilty or are found guilty. Judges could not impose such fees for minor traffic violations, simple infractions or class C misdemeanors.

Proceeds could be used for virtually any expense incurred by sheriffs' departments, prosecuting attorneys and local police agencies.

"In a lot of counties, especially in rural Missouri, it is very much needed," Mayer said. "Their law enforcement resources have really been taxed to the limit."

Many counties, including most in Southeast Missouri, had such funds until a judicial ethics commission ruled in 1998 that the counties had no legal authority to create them. Jordan said Cape Girardeau County had used the revenue from its fund for a variety of purposes, including drug education programs in local schools, equipment purchases and assisting the Cape Girardeau and Jackson municipal police departments on special purposes like establishing K-9 units.

"When those moneys were basically gone, we had to cut back on a lot of things," Jordan said.

To address some lawmakers' concerns that the measure would create slush funds for sheriffs, an independent board of trustees would have to approve all expenditures. The sheriff and prosecuting attorney would each appoint two board members, with the fifth member named by the county coroner. None of the board members could be current or past employees of the sheriff, prosecutor or county treasurer's offices.

The restitution fund is part of broader legislation that would double the existing statute of limitations on prosecuting sexual offenses against children. The bill would allow charges to be brought up to 20 years after a victim turns 18.

The bill would also elevate a first offense for possession of child pornography to a felony and expand Missouri's sex offender registry to include those convicted of promoting child pornography.

The bill is HB 1055.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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