Last week, The St. Louis American endorsed Kimberly Gardner for St. Louis circuit attorney in the Democratic primary on Tuesday, August 2.
Given the black community's relationship with the criminal justice system and general breakdown of public safety in many black neighborhoods, no one can overstate the importance of the circuit attorney's race. This is the city’s elected prosecutor who decides which cases to take to trial and what sentences to seek.
We asked Gardner some questions about her candidacy for this all-important position.
The St. Louis American: Why are you running for circuit attorney?
Kimberly Gardner: As a life-long city resident, mostly in North St. Louis, I see and feel the effects of crime on our community. I possess unique insight and qualifications to bring a new approach to how our city can reduce crime and fairly administer justice on behalf of the citizens. We need to change decades of old practices that left many in our community distrustful of the criminal justice system as a whole.
I am confident that I can bring about the necessary change to make our city safer. That is why I decided to give up a relatively safe state representative seat to enter a very competitive circuit attorney race.
The St. Louis American: What are some of those insights and qualifications that you are referring to?
Kimberly Gardner: My family’s 70-year North St. Louis funeral home business exposed me to the devastation that violent crime delivers to many of our city’s families. My experience as an assistant circuit attorney for the City of St. Louis gave me insight into the complexities that hinder us from creating safer communities. My background as a licensed nurse has exposed me to many of the health-related causes and consequences of persistent crime in our neighborhoods.
Through my service as a state representative for residents of the 77th House District, I have gained a deeper understanding of the required legislative skill and political awareness necessary to change laws that we seek to enforce. I have also spent most of my life in North St. Louis, where the vast majority of crime and victims are located. This gives me a point of view that has never existed in the circuit attorney for the City of St. Louis.
The St. Louis American: What does the circuit attorney do, and why should people care?
Kimberly Gardner: The circuit attorney is the chief criminal prosecutor of the City of St. Louis. The overarching role of the circuit attorney, through its leadership, is to ensure that justice is delivered fairly, diligently and efficiently.
The circuit attorney is uniquely positioned in our legal system, and uniquely situated to drive the change that many our citizens demand. The circuit attorney has unequalled and broad discretion in the criminal prosecution process – from whether to pursue criminal charges, to offer plea deal, or recommendation for bail or sentencing. Throughout the entire prosecution process, the circuit attorney exercises significant discretion.
The St. Louis American: The circuit attorney and the police department are joined at the hip. Talk about that relationship.
Kimberly Gardner: The police and prosecutors work closely together in solving and prosecuting crime. The circuit attorney relies on police to present, investigate, and offer evidence and testimony in court, which is central to effectively and successfully prosecute crime. However, law enforcement depends on the prosecutors to actually issue charges and prosecute or reject the case, based on the evidence they offer. Because of this close, interdependent relationship between police and prosecutors potential for conflict may surface when law enforcement is involved in criminal misconduct.
As the next circuit attorney, my job will be to insure that criminals who prey on citizens will be expeditiously and fairly prosecuted to the fullest extent of the laws of Missouri, regardless of their station in life or occupation.
The St. Louis American: Is the American criminal justice system fair?
Kimberly Gardner: Criminal justice system statistics suggest and too many Americans feel our system is unfair. This lack of faith, and the resulting skepticism in communities of color, have devastating consequences. It makes the job of holding those accountable who commit violent and serious crime difficult by lowering the levels of cooperation with law enforcement, prosecutors and courts in many of our communities.
The St. Louis American: Please expand on that?
Kimberly Gardner: By virtually every criminal statistic – arrest rates, sentencing, victims of police use of excessive force – communities of color are disproportionately over-represented. This being a large part of the history of many communities of color, there exists a large, prevailing mistrust of the criminal justice system.
That’s not just a distrust of law enforcement. It is spread across the entire justice system to include police, prosecutors and the courts. The experiences of many white Americans with law enforcement, prosecutors and the courts are significantly different from the experiences of many African Americans. This difference fuels, in large measure, the conflict that our nation is experiencing today.
The St. Louis American: Because of the history you just alluded to, there is an obviously strained relationship between the criminal justice system and communities of color. How do you plan to address this?
Kimberly Gardner: Too many African Americans have significant mistrust in the criminal justice system. The circuit attorney is in a unique position to address this lack of public trust by holding the office to a higher ethical standard by implementing a stringent, yet workable, ethics policy. I will make detailed city prosecution data available for public scrutiny. I will establish an office-wide community engagement effort across the city, particularly in those areas that experience high levels of crime.
Most importantly, I will not only hold my office accountable to the residents of St. Louis, but I will hold serious and violent criminals accountable, whether I find them in our neighborhoods, in law enforcement or in other parts of government. Justice will be fairly sought and delivered.
The Democratic Primary election is Tuesday, August 2.