Proposed legislation in the Missouri Senate could significantly alter criminal prosecution with a fundamental change in the structure of prosecuting attorney offices that is tied to structural reforms of the circuit court system.

Proposed legislation in the Missouri Senate could significantly alter criminal prosecution with a fundamental change in the structure of prosecuting attorney offices that is tied to structural reforms of the circuit court system.

Senate Bill 79, sponsored by Sen. Bob Dixon (R-Greene County), would allow county commissions to abolish the office of county prosecuting attorney to join a state's attorney system that could potentially have some elected prosecutors covering multiple counties.

Dixon has been the Chair of the Senate's Committee on Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence since 2013 and is also Chair of the General Assembly's Joint Committee on the Justice System.

SB 79 would allow a state's attorney to be elected every four years beginning with the 2018 general election from counties in a judicial circuit that have elected to join the system.

While there is potential cost savings from having fewer prosecutors in areas that have small dockets and multiple counties splitting the costs, the bill also requires state's attorneys to be paid more — the same as a circuit court judge.

As in a county prosecuting attorney office, a state's attorney would appoint assistant prosecutors, investigators and clerical staff and set their salaries within limits set by the county commission. While staff salaries and office costs would be paid by the county, however, the state's attorney would be paid by the state under this plan. Additionally, the state would provide the counties with increasing reimbursement of the state's attorney office operating costs.

The schedule for reimbursement currently outlined by the bill would require reimbursement of 5 percent in 2019 to 50 percent in 2028 and beyond for circuits consisting of one county. For circuits consisting of more than one county, the rate would 10 percent in 2019 to 50 percent in 2023 and beyond, but in these circuits where more than one county contributes to the expenses, each county would be reimbursed in the same proportion as the contribution.

This issue is also tied to the state's authorized circuit realignment plan.

Signed into law in 2013 through House Bills 374 and 474, RSMo 478.073 requires a reorganization of the existing circuit court boundaries along county lines. The first plan would be submitted in 2020 to go into effect the next year, and then realignment process would be held again every 20 years.

A judicial conference will advise the legislature at these times on what alterations to the boundaries should be made to try to equalize the workload in each circuit. Recommendations are to be based on a current judicial weighted workload model, a current clerical weighted workload model, access for litigants to the courts, the populations of the current and proposed judicial circuits, judicial duties and travel time, historical connections between counties in the judicial circuits and any other information deemed relevant by the judicial conference.

The state is currently broken up into 45 judicial circuits. The realignment would not change the total number of circuits in existence on the eve of the realignment.

According to a press release from Dixon's office, the new process for realignment reflecting population shifts and caseload increases will be the first reorganization of the state's judicial circuit since 1959.

“I am honored to continue serving as Judiciary chair,” stated Sen. Dixon in a press release on the upcoming session. “I remain focused on the same core priorities — improving the administration of justice, providing greater access to justice, and promoting public safety — all of which require a justice system equipped and prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. Therefore, I’ve been an advocate for close examination of its structure, administration and resources, as well as the revision of outdated, obsolete or unnecessary statutes.”

The state's attorneys proposed under SB 79 would end up tied to these modified circuits.

If passed, some county prosecuting attorneys are worried that the bill is the first step toward abolishing county prosecutors altogether in favor of a state's attorney or district attorney type system.

The Missouri Prosecuting Attorneys for Local Accountability and Control (MPALAC) is a bipartisan group of elected county prosecuting attorneys from all regions of the state who are officially opposed to any mandated change to a state's attorney system.

"We live in and know the communities we serve. We are accountable to the voters of our community. The County Prosecuting Attorney system has served our state well for over a hundred years and there is no compelling reason to mandate a complete and radical change to a system that works for the citizens of Missouri," says the MPALAC's mission statement.

A member of MPALAC, Morgan County Prosecutor Dustin Dunklee says other changes connected to prosecution that have been implemented by the legislature in recent memory have started out as optional but eventually became mandatory, such as the fine collection center for traffic tickets and e-filing.

While he doesn't have a problem with those changes, a mandated district or state attorney's system would have far greater significance — one that MPALAC members believe will have a negative impact. They are concerned that it would reduce accountability to the citizens of individual counties as well as potentially affect felony prosecutions if they are stretched too far.

Voters already decide whether the docket and workload in their particular county warrants a full-time or part-time prosecutor position. Just a few years ago, Morgan County voters decided that the caseload of the prosecutor's office warranted a full-time position after being part-time for many years.

The state's attorney could struggle to service all of the felony cases within the district, says Dunklee. While the state's attorney for the district would appoint assistant prosecutors, the assistant prosecutors would be responsible for misdemeanor and juvenile cases in each county and the one elected state's attorney for that grouping or circuit would be obligated to handle all felony cases, says Dunklee.

The logistics of the system over wide geographical areas is one of the MPALAC's biggest concerns. Depending on where the prosecutor's office would be located, it could take up to three hours just to drive from the office to the courtroom.

In addition to prosecution, it could also mean a simple customer service type issue trying to handle calls from citizens, victims and law enforcement, which can come at all hours, Dunklee says.

"We do support in some fashion funding help from the state. We've asking for that for years," he says.

Unlike judges and some other offices related to the judicial system, prosecuting attorney offices are currently paid from county budgets alone although the rate of pay is set by the state.

Dunklee suggested more grants for things like hiring victim resource personnel.

"There's a way of going about it, but this [SB79] is not going to help locals, and it can't save money," he says.

It should be noted that Dixon has filed another bill related to prosecuting attorneys.

SB 80 allows two or more contiguous counties within a single judicial circuit to employ a prosecutor cooperatively, but not as a "state's attorney.”

The counties opting to co-op this position would set how to compensate the prosecutor and other staff through a joint agreement between the jurisdictions.

These multi-jurisdictional prosecutors would also represent state agencies in the collection of debt within their boundaries, and would retain 20 percent of all debt collected on behalf of state agencies as a collection fee.

One-half of that fee would go to the Missouri Office of Prosecution Service Fund to be used for offsetting county expenses related to victim services, office supplies, postage and books, training, office equipment, capital outlay, expenses of trial and witness preparation, additional employees for the staff of the prosecuting attorney and salary supplements for existing employees on staff of the prosecuting attorney.

The other half of the collection fee would go to the county treasurer of each county employing the prosecutor based on the rate in the joint agreement between the counties.

To implement this system, the presiding commissioner of the most populous county in the proposed area would call a meeting of the county commissioners of all the counties involved. This body would be responsible for approving a joint agreement that specified the duties of each county.