Candidates for some of the highest law enforcement positions in Pettis County spoke with the public and answered questions in a forum hosted by the NAACP as part of the Sedalia Juneteenth Celebration Saturday afternoon at Hubbard Park.
“We think people need to know the positions of those people who are running,” said Rhonda Chalfant, president of the Sedalia Chapter of the NAACP. “We think the people need the opportunity to ask questions of those people who are running.”
On the Aug. 5 Republican ticket, two candidates are vying for a seat on the bench left vacant by the retirement of Division 6 Associate Circuit Judge Robert Liston. In the Republican primary race, current Pettis County Prosecuting Attorney Jeff Mittelhauser faces off against term limited state Rep. Stan Cox.
The winner of the primary will face Carmen Smith, who is running unopposed on the Democratic ticket, and Deborah Mitchell as an Independent candidate. With Mittelhauser seeking a seat on the bench, a four-way race for his position between Phillip Sawyer, Kim Tanner, Andrew Rehmer and Myron McNeal is in the making.
Five minutes were given to each candidate to offer opening remarks and to give the public some educational and career background, starting with the three contestants for Division 6 Associate Circuit Judge, who all offered a laundry list of achievements. Those running for the prosecuting attorney position also listed numerous accomplishments and all have a background in criminal justice.
With nearly a century of combined legal expertise on the stand, so to speak, it may be difficult for the voters to decide who the best person for the job is based on experience and qualifications, so the public offered some questions. As this was an open forum, the questions were not specific to either position — all six had the opportunity to answer any of the questions at any time.
How do you feel about the restorative justice victim mediation program?
The first to answer was Sawyer.
“The restorative justice program has its place. I don’t think we should ever turn our back on any single program that’s out there,” Sawyer said. “That’s not to say it’s a magic saving grace. The program itself has good intentions, it has good criteria and it can accomplish a lot for us. I think everyone here today has reiterated that Pettis County has a crime problem and a drug problem.
“I think we need these programs as an option. We can’t compel defendants to be in the programs. The defendants can’t drive the program — the program needs to drive the defendants. We can’t be forcing people into these programs and make them fit just so we can maintain the programs.”
He added it takes an experienced defense attorney to be able to spot the types of people that are eligible for such programs in order to make the program successful.
Mittelhauser responded next by breaking the program down into three parts — monetary restitution, community service and victim-offender mediated communication.
“We have always used restitution and community service where it is possible,” Mittelhauser said. “We use victim-offender mediated dialogue on a very limited basis. I believe it is a good program to help the offender understand what impact he or she has had on the victim and it’s also beneficial to a victim to understand what may have caused this person to end up in his or her house or in their car on that particular evening.
“The limitation on its use has been that we have had probably 40 percent of the victims that it has been offered to that were not willing to participate in that aspect of it. I believe restorative justice is a good component of a probation disposition, but it is not a good substitute for the other components of the criminal justice system.”
Tanner offered an opinion on the program from a defense attorney point of view.
“I was able to use it twice and it’s true, it will not work for everybody,” Tanner said. “But it is valuable. A lot of times the victims are family members and people that the defendant knew and it does bring closure, the dialogue portion of it does bring closure and even restoration. It is something that does need to be utilized in the restoration of families or neighborhoods to bring closure to the situations that brought them to court in the first place.”
Smith addressed the question from a victim’s standpoint, saying they are often reluctant to participate because they’ve already been through enough.
“You can ask a person if they would like to participate because we do have a lot of crimes that are domestic violence or even a crime against children or stealing,” Smith said. “Sometimes the victims and offenders do know each other and sometimes the crime isn’t of such a magnitude that a life should be ruined and some sort of resolution needs to be obtained.”
What do you, as either judge or prosecutor, plan to do to deal with the drug problem over and beyond prosecution?
Smith answered first, saying drugs need to be viewed in different categories because in Pettis County usage ranges from someone who may smoke marijuana to fall asleep to manufacturers of methamphetamine.
“In regards to the drug issue in Pettis County, there are levels of drug use,” Smith said. “There are people who smoke marijuana on a daily basis because that’s how they go to bed at night. There are people who are selling marijuana in large quantities because you don’t have to have a job application to sell marijuana and now you can pay your bills. There are people who are manufacturing and importing methamphetamine and it’s causing a huge detriment to society and then there’s the pill problem.
“You have to understand that each drug issue has its own beginning and its own reason that it’s happening. Currently there is legislation pending where drugs are going to actually be reclassified as a lesser felony, which gives the opinion that drugs are becoming more acceptable. It’s almost like a prohibition thing, at one point it was illegal to drink and now it’s illegal to smoke marijuana unless you go to Colorado so marijuana is like a nuisance crime right now,” Smith said, adding that it needs to be handled via the legislature.
Rehmer then spoke, saying the way to curb the problem was to find out who was using and who was selling, then sending the sellers to prison.
“There is something in Missouri called prior and persistent drug offenders. You start filing that, and when I file it, I never drop it,” Rehmer said. “The offers start at 10 years and go up from there. The alternative is to get treatment for the drug users. In Stoddard County we have 75 people in drug court. In Pettis County their drug court is ‘pre-plea.’ They plead guilty but at sentencing they never get anything. If they complete drug court the charges get dropped. In Stoddard County that’s not how it happens. They plead guilty, they get an SIS, they go to drug court. If you fail out you’re going to prison.”
Tanner said she would approach the problem as a member of the criminal justice system, but also through the eyes of a social worker.
“I’m told that I can’t go into office, be prosecutor, and be a social worker. Well, I can go in with the heart of a social worker and still do what I need to do to protect this community to bring about a change that we so badly need,” Tanner said. “I can with one hand prosecute the cases, put the cases together, do everything I’m supposed to do and charge them the way they’re supposed to be charged.
“With this hand I can continue to do everything I’m already doing, working with the many organizations and agencies, both governmental and private, and faith-based, that care about the problems in this community.”
Should drugs be legalized?
Mittelhauser said he was prohibited from commenting on an issue that might be brought before him as a judge, but asked those in attendance to look at some of the problems Colorado is having in that regard. Cox said there is not a majority interest in the general assembly to legalize marijuana or any drug, adding he thinks it’s a bad thing.
Smith said she is for the legalization of marijuana and that it should be taxed, but takes a strong stance against hard drugs such as methamphetamine. Rehmer is against the legalization of marijuana and said there are no benefits to it. Sawyer is also opposed as he says it would benefit drug dealers.