“Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner has made friends and enemies alike in her steadfast efforts to prosecute a conservative governor who has turned radioactive. But we have seen little to no structural reform in the way that her office approaches the day-to-day prosecution of poor black defendants concentrated in North City zip codes. The Circuit Attorney’s Office continues to oppose bail reductions as a matter of course, and Gardner herself has said and done nothing to combat the destructive reliance on excessive cash bail. As a result, every day, hundreds of human beings are locked behind bars in the City of St. Louis purely because they don’t have enough money to buy their way out.
Gardner has also stopped short of simply refusing to prosecute certain cases, including marijuana possession. This, despite substantial evidence that such drug crimes are a major driver of racial disparity in the criminal legal system. Gardner has even continued the prosecution of protestors, including a recent effort to revoke the protest-related probation of a local activist based upon a subsequent protest-related arrest in another state.
Compare this to the record of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who has been in office one year less than Gardner, and has already instructed his prosecutors to decline marijuana possession and paraphernalia charges; consider the social and financial costs of incarceration in arguing sentencing; and make plea offers below the bottom end of sentencing guidelines, all in an explicit effort to combat mass incarceration. Why should we demand anything less?
Former judge Jimmie Edwards occupies the role of Public Safety director, arguably the office best positioned to promote a truly innovative and holistic approach to public safety. Unfortunately, we have heard nothing from Edwards about changing the city’s approach to redirect resources away from a failed arrest-and-incarcerate model toward a model focused on reducing poverty and homelessness, and investing in healthy, opportunity-rich communities.
Instead, Edwards has at times embraced a familiar kind of scapegoating rhetoric, such as when he took the occasion of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to place the burden of community violence squarely on the shoulders of young black men. In response to a multitude of complaints regarding the city’s Workhouse jail, including by ArchCity Defenders on behalf of its clients in a class-action lawsuit, Edwards saw fit to guide a tour of the jail (months after the suit was filed), suggesting that the allegations of uninhabitable conditions by countless firsthand witnesses had been fabricated. Despite startlingly consistent accounts of infestation and well-documented triple-digit temperatures inside the facility last summer, Edwards assured reporters that Workhouse inmates are treated with “dignity and respect.”
Police Chief John Hayden is only a few months into his new role, but already he has been clear about his and Edwards’s Ferguson-esque plan to ramp up enforcement of lower-level “crimes” like speeding and expired tags within a high-crime “rectangle” in North City, seemingly ignoring the devastating effects that we know policing of such poverty crimes has had in cities like Ferguson and many others. During a neighborhood “Block Blitz” in March, city residents reported that SLMPD officers were ticketing and towing their cars under the pretense of “outreach” and “services.” More recently, Hayden bemoaned what he called the “improper release” of department policies and procedures pursuant to a Sunshine Law request, despite the fact that other police departments, including St. Louis County, publish such procedures online voluntarily.”
Letter from Blake Strode: What can we expect from all of this black representation?
Blake Strode, an American civil rights lawyer serving as the executive director of ArchCity Defenders, sent The American a long open letter about black representation and progressive change in public