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Opinion: Mandatory Minimums Are a Bad Idea, Not a Solution

It’s not news that crime in the city of St. Louis is high. Violent crime, especially. Most people look at the homicide rate as proof that St. Louis is a dangerous place. So far, as of the end of September, 139 people had been murdered in our city. The good news is that that’s down 14 homicides as compared to the same time last year. The bad news is that for a city the size of ours, that still makes St. Louis one of the deadliest places in America on a per capita basis. The worse news is that the homicide rate isn’t really the best measure of how violent St. Louis actually is. For that, one should look at the number of people shot, not just killed.

You see, for all the people shot in St. Louis, only a small fraction actually die. The number of aggravated assaults that occur here every year is shocking. As of Sept. 30, there were 1,801 assaults with a firearm. That’s an average of 6.5 per day. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a crisis. One that demands immediate action. And so when the city’s public safety director appeared this week before an aldermanic committee, aldermen and the public were eager to hear new solutions. Sadly, that’s not what they got.

Public Safety Director (and former judge) Jimmie Edwards brought all his top police personnel, including police chief John Hayden, with him to appear before the Board of Aldermen’s public safety committee Tuesday, Oct. 16. Crime is the top issue most aldermen, especially north side aldermen, hear about from their constituents. It’s a source of great frustration for aldermen, not only because as city residents they personally deal with the issue of crime and violence themselves, but as elected officials they receive the complaints without actually having any direct control over police or supporting departments. Those all fall under the control of the mayor—and Edwards.

Edwards, who was appointed by Mayor Lyda Krewson one year ago, oversees more than 3,500 employees and an operating budget of $340 million. The Public Safety Department is the largest city department and includes the police and fire departments. With more resources at his disposal than any other official in city government, aldermen and the public were eager to hear his plans to reduce violent crime. Sadly, instead of innovative solutions, Edwards offered an idea that both passes the buck to a Republican-controlled state legislature and is a throwback to policies that decimated the black community in decades past.

“I hope to obtain support for a state legislative solution to gun crime we have in St. Louis,” Edwards told aldermen. “I believe that gun violence would be reduced if the armed criminal action statute was amended to require that the charge of armed criminal action be filed any time there is a non-fatal or fatal shooting of anyone in Missouri, including if perpetrated by a first-time offender.”

Edwards continued on to say that he plans to advocate that “upon a plea of guilty or a finding of guilt, for a non-fatal gun assault, the convicted defendant shall be sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 15 years in prison without the eligibility of probation or parole, and that a mandatory minimum of 25 years in prison be imposed for a defendant convicted of any class homicide without the eligibility of probation or parole.”

Ah, mandatory minimums. A favorite of politicians wishing to appear tough on crime without any thought about the unintended consequences of mass incarceration and its devastating effects on communities of color.

Not to mention that there is a reason there is a separation between the judicial and legislative branches. For the state legislature to take away the ability of judges to examine on a case by case basis the circumstances of each crime actually defeats the purpose of judges.

Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, it avoids answering the biggest question: Why is violent crime such a problem in the City of St. Louis moreso than any other place in Missouri—even neighboring north St. Louis County, which more and more has similar characteristics of concentrated poverty and joblessness. Why does St. Louis City, particularly the handful of neighborhoods that account for the majority of city violence, see more gun crimes than any other place in Missouri?

I’d argue the answer is that St. Louis City government has abandoned those neighborhoods and allowed crime to fester there without city investment or special attention from vital city departments, including police, but also Parks and Recreations to provide after-school opportunities for kids; Health to address wellness; Streets and Refuse to address trash and illegal dumping; the city’s development and job placement agencies; and even St. Louis Public Schools, which while not directly a part of city government, has contributed to the problem with chronically underperforming schools and neglect of its inventory of vacant buildings.

Many of these resources are directly under the control of Edwards. All of them, with the exception of SLPS, are under the control of the mayor. What is needed is an acceptance of responsibility by Krewson and Edwards for safety in this city and new, bold solutions that will surely require the cooperation of Jefferson City, but does not pass the buck to state officials alone for fixing what is our most important local issue.

Antonio French Antonio French is the publisher of, The NorthSider and SouthSider community newspapers. Born and raised in north St. Louis, he is a social entrepreneur and former two-term St. Louis City alderman. He lives in the O'Fallon Park neighborhood with his wife, son, and four rescue dogs. Follow him on Twitter at @antoniofrench.

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