Once again, outside prosecutors have decided that prosecuting violent crimes in federal court is the best way for St. Louis to lose its reputation as the deadliest city in the United States. And once again, they’ve gotten it wrong.
This week, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt announced he’s loaning some of his lawyers to U.S. Attorney Jeff Jensen so Jensen’s office can prosecute more violent St. Louis crimes as federal crimes. The idea is that federal sentences are longer, have no time off for good behavior, and should help deter gunmen from shooting up the city. The problem is, it hasn’t worked so far.
In 2018, federal courts in the Eastern District of Missouri doubled the number of violent crimes in St. Louis they prosecuted. And the violent crime rate didn’t change. But that’s an old, old story in St. Louis.
Ever since Reagan, the feds have pushed for federalizing gun crimes, putting gun offenders into federal court, where the sentences are longer. The Eastern District of Missouri has led the nation for years in the number of prosecuted violent crimes. It hasn’t dented St. Louis’ murder rate. A federally funded report from March 2017 was pretty clear about why. It concluded that the feds assumed that prosecutions would stop violent crime because they believe violent crime results from organized criminal activity, like gangs or drugs.
The report concluded that, in St. Louis, most violent crime is the result not of organization, but of anarchy. People aren’t killed over drug profits or gang turf. They’re murdered, in the words of one cop, “over the silliest s**t you can imagine.” A perceived insult, a sideways look, an argument about a boyfriend, girlfriend, cousin, TV show, or chop suey leads to death. St. Louis gunslingers acting as part of a de-facto death cult apparently don’t worry about increased jail time by going into the federal system.
But St. Louis, in an example of “damn the evidence, full speed ahead,” has ignored that reality. For the last 25 years, the federal Eastern District of Missouri has been among the top 10 federal jurisdictions in the nation for prosecuting violent crimes on the federal level. In 2016, and again in 2018, it led the entire nation in the raw number of suspected violent criminals perp-walked through the federal system.
Flash back to March 2017, when then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions came to St. Louis to repeat the claim that federal prosecutions would cut crime. That could have been the claim in 2007, or in 1997, when something called Project Exile began in the Clinton Administration. Project Exile’s main focus was transferring violent gun crimes to federal jurisdiction.
The problem with Project Exile was its basic assumption. It assumed that the bloodstained, but logical, driver behind violent gun crime was money, that organized gangs used murder and violence to enforce order and make sure profits from drugs or prostitution weren’t being poached.
But in many cities, like St. Louis, that simply wasn’t the case. There was no large-scale organization like the Bloods or Crips or Latin Kings. There was no city-wide, systematized gang hierarchy that controlled profits. Instead, there were small sets of associates and neighbors that banded together neighborhood by neighborhood (sometimes block by block) and called themselves gangs. Most often, murders didn’t have anything to do with large-scale profits.
Instead, the violence was over petty street-corner drug deals that went sideways, or over “respect”, or over the suspicion of disrespect. Pride, not profit, was driving the bus.
At almost the same time Sessions was in St. Louis, the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs issued a report on deadly violence in St. Louis. The 71-page report had a lot of observations and made plenty of recommendations. What it did not recommend was federal prosecution of violent crime as a way to solve the problem.
It did recommend more community outreach by the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department to heal community mistrust of cops. It did say that the poorest, blackest neighborhoods had the highest murder rates, and should have the highest rates of police presence. And it did note that city police only made arrests in 56 percent of homicides between 2010 and 2012, and that the rate has now fallen to 46 percent.
The report suggested all sorts of pro-active community policing strategies for reducing the astronomical murder rate in the city. But nowhere did it even mention that referring violent gun crimes to the feds for prosecution was an answer.
That’s because it’s not. And yet, here we are again, with well-meaning prosecutors clogging up the federal courts with violent gun crimes, while ignoring two strategies that have been proven to work.
The first is one-on-one mentoring and intervention, the kind of programs groups like Better Family Life have been pushing for years. Getting street-level peers to intervene to defuse conflict before the shooting starts works. And given the epidemic level of distrust of the police among many in St. Louis’ black communities, it’s not a strategy that will work if cops and prosecutors are involved, because too many people are suspicious of both. Systematic reform within the police department to cure that mistrust is a step the federal report recommended, and prosecutors ignore.
The second is going after the sources of guns that are flooding the streets. But given Missouri’s lax pro-gun laws, that task may almost be impossible. The only thing that causes the guns to be confiscated is if someone is a felon in possession of one. City cops are well aware of the game. They stop a car. They find four people, and four guns. Three of the people are convicted felons. The fourth says the guns belong to him, so under Missouri’s gun-nut-friendly laws, police have to let everyone go, with their guns.
There are a number of things St. Louis can do, as a community, to reduce gun violence. Hauling suspects into federal court isn’t one of them.
Charles Jaco is a journalist, author, and activist. Follow him on Twitter at @charlesjaco1.