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More than Ferguson: Reform-minded prosecutors face obstacles

ST. LOUIS – What was the root cause of the unrest in Ferguson?

The depth and complexity of that question make it almost unanswerable, but most agree that one of the major factors was a legal system perceived to have different sets of rules for haves and have-nots, as well as whites and blacks.

That is a safe statement to make, because voters in both St. Louis and St. Louis County have sprung political upsets in the five years since, electing reformers to top prosecution posts. The city’s Kim Gardner and the county’s Wesley Bell are both African-American, both light on a “prosecutorial” resume, and both heavy with ideas of what is wrong with the system and how it should be changed.

Bell was elected to the Ferguson City Council in the wake of the unrest that followed the shooting of Michael Brown by police Officer Darren Wilson in 2014. Bell points less to what happened in Ferguson and more to a big-picture realization by the public that the system isn’t working.

“People are starting to understand,” he told MetroSTL.com’s Charles Jaco earlier this year, “when we look at our incarceration rates being the highest in the world, when we see that this supposed law-and-order approach has only increased violent crimes and serious crimes across the country. I think people are starting to get it.”

But both reformers have received some pushback since they entered office. For Bell, it was 30 of his prosecutors’ joining the controversial and often combative St. Louis Police Officers Association as he took charge in Clayton.

For Gardner, it’s been more complex. Her critics grew more vocal after her involvement in the charging of then-Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens on charges of invasion of privacy in connection with a sex scandal that was part of what led to his resignation from office. One of Gardner’s investigators was indicted by a special prosecutor for perjury and tampering with evidence in the office’s handling of the Greitens case.

That indictment also raised questions about Gardner’s actions, specifically her not correcting one of the investigator’s alleged lies before the grand jury when she was present. Gardner was never charged with anything, and the grand jury disbanded.

In the wake of that, what jumped out at the city’s Circuit Attorney is the fact that, in her view, an indictment is not supposed to go into such detail about other people, who have not been charged with anything.

“I can’t speak to the internal thinking of the special prosecutor, but I do know, in terms of how an indictment is supposed to be formed, and that causes concerns,” she said on MetroSTL.com’s “The Jaco Report.”

“Ethical concerns,” she clarified. “As a prosecutor we are guided by certain guidelines and rules, and regardless of opinions of a personal nature, those are not put in an indictment. That is improper, and it’s not fair.”

When you ask Gardner and Bell whether they are facing pushback because they’re trying to change the system, you get very different answers.

From Gardner, it’s a resounding “yes.”

“It is about cronyism and the status quo,” she said, “and when you are a reform-minded prosecutor and you are about changing systems, you are going to have pushback, but pushback in ways you’d never expect. I think it’s bigger than Kim Gardner. It’s about silencing the people of the city of St. Louis who elected me to make reforms in a system that has been broken, does not work and has needed to be changed.”

When we spoke to Bell, he downplayed his challenges, specifically the unionization of his prosecutors, saying he supported their right to organize but questioned their choice of the police union.

“As prosecutors we are struggling nationwide to disassociate ourselves with the notion that we are too interdependent with law enforcement, and this sets us back,” he said.

Rather than directly discussing any pushback, Bell described how he hoped to change things he saw as wrong with the system. He said he wanted to do away with cash bail because, he said, it punished poor people who were still presumed innocent. He also spoke at length about diversionary programs he wanted to use with low-level offenders rather than sending them to jail or prison.

“Instead of starting that cycle of incarceration, we’re treating the underlying root cause,” Bell said. “Now I want to make sure it’s clear.  We’re not talking about serious and violent offenders. They need to be held accountable. We understand that, and we will continue to do that.

“What we are not going to do is to continue to incarcerate non-violent, low-level offenders who pose no threat to our community. Instead, we want to get them the treatment that they need. That brings crime rates down. That saves taxpayer dollars, and it helps people.”

Both prosecutors have given fuel to their critics. Bell caught flak for firing three longtime prosecutors almost immediately after entering office. More recently, he’s been slammed for racking up a slew of unpaid parking tickets in Clayton, despite the fact he has an assigned parking space across the street from his office.

Gardner saw even more turnover, enough to raise plenty of eyebrows.  In the first six months of her tenure in 2017, more than 25 percent of the prosecutors on her staff left for other jobs, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

But both said they were in their jobs because the people who elected them wanted to see change. In separate interviews, both pointed to a system that had been the same for years, and violent-crime problems that had not been solved. Both said it was time to focus on dangerous, violent criminals and stop wasting resources on low-level offenders.  And both indicated that they could and would push forward with reform despite running into a variety of roadblocks along the way.

“They’re doing their job,” Gardner said of her staff. “They’re holding violent offenders accountable, and at the same time we’re reforming a system that needs to be reformed so we can make our city safer.”

George Sells

george.sells@metrostlcom.wpcomstaging.com George Sells is an Emmy Award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of experience in news. He has spent the last decade on the St. Louis media scene, working for KTVI Fox 2, HEC Media, and more recently as a host for KMOX Radio. His wife of twenty years, Julie, was born and raised in St. Louis. They have two kids and a dog.

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