Though status quo candidates won a disconcerting number of citywide and countywide elections in the St. Louis region in recent years, let us not forget that both city and county voters elected prosecutors running on a change platform the last time they went to the ballot box. St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner and St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell – both the first African American to hold their respective positions – were elected by voters who responded to a cry for change in how criminal justice is administered.
Against relentless scrutiny (which should be expected by any public official) and steady resistance and attack, both are pursuing progressive reforms in matters like prosecuting non-violent drug offenses and requests for pretrial detention. Bell, who had Gardner’s example to study, hit the ground running in the new year but, just two and a half months later, is understandably still getting started. Gardner, elected in 2016, has passed her midterm in office and is starting to find a rhythm.
No less impressive an ally than St. Louis District Public Defender Mary Fox – who is literally Gardner’s adversary every day in court – told the audience at a public forum on March 7 that Gardner’s evolving approach to pretrial detention is having a positive impact. Thanks to Gardner and community advocates, Fox said, the number of people awaiting trial behind bars has dwindled to the point where the City of St. Louis could shutter its notorious Medium Security Institution, commonly known as the Workhouse, and house all detainees in the City Justice Center.
Tishaura O. Jones lost her race for St. Louis mayor by 888 votes (in a crowded field of contenders), running on the vow to close the Workhouse. Mayor Lyda Krewson now has the opportunity to belatedly steal a plank from her closest opponent’s platform and join this new, evolving reform coalition. She should do it now. Mayor Krewson should immediately order Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards to begin moving detainees out of the Workhouse and to put out the lights in this inhumane eyesore before the sweltering days of summer.
However, according to one committed community advocate, Michael Milton of the Bail Project, Edwards himself is posing an obstacle to reform. Milton told The American that he made a presentation to Edwards, the Corrections commissioner, and representatives from the mayor’s office about alternatives to the cash bail system. Milton said that Edwards – a former circuit judge – did not appear receptive to the model. Edwards did not return The St. Louis American’s request for comment on this claim. It’s remarkable that Edwards no longer feels that he owes a response to concerns of the readers of The St. Louis American.
“I think all he’s looking at is violent offenses,” Milton said of Edwards. “He is shaping policy and rules around the horror stories. He needs to re-envision what public safety could be, and I think we could help him do that.” We agree. We think that Edwards should open his door and ears to these committed reformers and become a force for change, not fear.