Dixon looking to reform county prosecutor system

  

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — At least one state lawmaker wants to reform the organization and funding of Missouri’s system of county prosecutors and he’ll be filing multiple bills to that end next year. Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, wants the state to reconsider the structural organization and the funding mechanisms for the prosecutors as part of a larger discussion on governmental organization.

“Do we want the state run by dead people?” Dixon said in an interview with The Missouri Times. “Some of the structures for the systems we have in place were written 40, 50 or 100 years ago. When it’s in the constitution that the county seat can be no further than a day’s ride by horseback, that’s letting dead people run the state.”

Missouri currently funds prosecutors on a county-by-county basis. Each of the more than 100 counties in the state funds their own prosecutor. Some states, like neighboring Illinois, fund prosecutors similarly to state public defenders: as state employees. Missouri lawmakers, like Dixon, are toying with the idea of restructuring the system. Jason Lamb, Executive Director of the Missouri Association for Prosecuting Attorneys, says they supported Dixon’s attempts last year, and plan to back him again this year.

“When you’re in a courtroom anywhere in Missouri the only person in that room not funded by the state is the prosecutor,” Lamb said. “The judge, the public defender, the clerk, everyone else in that room is funded by the state.”

Sen. Bob Dixon
Sen. Bob Dixon

Former state senator Tim Green filed a bill in 2010 to allow counties to voluntarily enter into a new system for prosecutors. Under the bill, each judicial circuit for counties choosing to participate would hold elections for a district attorney, who would serve a four-year term.

The plan, which was similar to Dixon’s, would place the burden of funding the offices and salaries of anyone working for the district attorney on the local county, but the state would pay the salary of the district attorney. The bill also featured a ballooning reimbursement system for county offices.

“So much of the current structure is a product of the 19th century,” Lamb said. “Part-time prosecutors in these small offices is a product of that. Because prosecutors need to find the best funding mechanism without sacrificing accountability.”

Dixon said he planned to offer two versions of his bill next year. The first would create a mandatory opt-in system for counties to combine prosecutors. The second bill would make the restricting mandatory and based largely on the circuit court system. Lamb told The Missouri Times that he supported the voluntary opt-in but that he was unsure whether MAPA would support a mandate.

Dixon has filed bills with a range of different solutions for prosecutors. Last year, Dixon offered bills allowing small county prosecuting offices to combine with one another to reduce costs. Dixon also supported legislative language allowing individual counties to opt-in to a district attorney structure.

“We have to be discussing what the most efficient way is to deliver the best service to the taxpayer at the best price,” Dixon said. “When counties are strapped, what’s wrong with letting them voluntarily enter into an agreement to combine their resources and services and reduce their costs?”

Dixon said that after he pitched his idea to Missouri’s Association of Counties, several local lawmakers approached him about the possibility of combining other offices with neighboring counties as well.

“It could theoretically applied to things like county clerks or even judges; there are a lot of ideas and I told them that’s the point – they are asking the right questions. We need to be talking about ways to improve and modernize government systems.”

Dan Knight, newly-minted President of MAPA and the Boone County Prosecutor, said some counties weren’t fortunate enough to have a broad tax base to appropriately fund prosecutors.

“We are capable of adequately funding our office,” Knight said. “That said, there are always needs, of course, but not all counties are as lucky as ours to have a great tax base that can contribute to services. Other counties are very much strapped to fund their offices appropriately.”

Dixon said that ultimately Missouri’s 1875 Constitution would need to be examined for “dated” statutes and structures. Missouri has more counties than any other state in the country, the 4th largest lower chamber of any state legislature, and more than 500 school districts – some with less than 100 students. According to Dixon, all of these are examples of dated laws and “dead men” dictating modern Missouri.

Dixon even pointed to the St. Louis metropolitan region and it’s infamous city-county divide. The fragmented structure of St. Louis County and it’s 90 municipalities can have serious ramifications on effectively providing services, Dixon said. The Springfield senator said even the unfolding events in Ferguson could, at least partially, be linked to the problem of bad governmental structure.

“How can we deliver the best service, quantity, and quality in the most efficient way and at the best price to the taxpayer?” Dixon said. “By changing and morphing. We have to morph with the times.”