When Redditt Hudson was working as an undercover St. Louis cop trying to bust drug dealers in North City, he had a conversation with a father that he’ll never forget.
Hudson started choking up when he started to tell the story, as a panelist during St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner’s public forum at Saint Louis University on Thursday, July 18. Hudson, a cop turned human rights activist, is now a community liaison as part of Gardner’s diversion and alternative prosecution programs.
“The brother was about the age that I am now,” Hudson said. “I’m 54, and at the time I was in my 30s.”
Hudson was sitting in a car about to give the man money for drugs and call in his police team. Then, the man suddenly stopped.
“He turned to me and said, ‘I hate what I’m doing, man. I hate it. But this is what I have to do to keep a roof….’”
At that point, Hudson lowered the microphone and tried to compose himself, while the audience yelled, “Stay strong.”
In a whispered voice, he continued, “‘...over my daughters’ head. I’ve got two daughters, and I’m all they have. Their mother is a drug addict and hasn’t been in their lives for a while. The neighborhood we live in is so dangerous, I fear for their lives all the time. But I’m their protector. I do odd jobs, but I have to do this to make ends meet.’”
Hudson took another minute to say the last line, “‘Brother, I don’t know what would happen to my daughters if something happened to me.’”
Since then, Hudson has raised daughters, he said, and he’s found himself thinking about that man and his daughters, while spending time with his own.
“What the hell happened to his daughters after we sent him to prison?” Hudson said, looking defeated. “So that saturation approach and the criminalization of poverty breaks families and communities apart. And it targets those who have not.”
Hudson said Gardner’s Justice 2020 plan gives St. Louis the chance to be part of a national movement to break this cycle.
“This has been Ground Zero for criminal justice reform ever since Michael Brown was murdered 10 minutes from my house,” Hudson said.
At the public forum, Gardner explained what her administration is doing to make sure the justice system isn’t just working for the rich.
“We have to tear down the system,” Gardner said. “The system is going to do what it’s going to do, and that is to cause harm. The system has caused harm by what is called ‘mass incarceration.’ And we have to look at how we stop the cycle of victimization. You’re a victim today and a perpetrator tomorrow; and you go back and forth between those two roles.”
Since January 1, there are 207 fewer people in St. Louis Justice Center and the Medium Security Institution, known as the Workhouse, Gardner said. Advocates and even Public Defender Mary Fox have given Gardner much credit for this reduction. Gardner was hitting all the talking points that criminal reform advocates have been pushing for decades.
“As a registered nurse, we have to attack crime as a public health crisis,” Gardner said.
She has instituted the jurisdiction’s first pre-plea/post-plea diversion programs and the first domestic violence review board. She explained that a year of participation in the office’s diversion program costs the city 95 percent less than a year in the Justice Center, which costs more than $30,000 a year.
Her office received federal funding for Gardner’s conviction integrity unit that investigates allegations of innocence in old cases, working in partnership with the Innocence Project. The office’s diversion programs for youth offenders are robust, she said. Hudson and several felons-turned-mentors are successfully keeping young offenders 17 to 25 from getting snared in the criminal justice system.
“Their brains are not developed, so they make those quick decisions that will affect their life,” she said. “If we get them earlier, we can make a difference in their lives.”
By the end of 2019, 429 people will have successfully completed diversion since 2016, according to her office. She initiated a program specifically for cases regarding child support. SLATE also operates within her office, as do several counselors.
“What you’re hearing is ‘within our office,’” Gardner said. “This is not just referral-based. This is establishing that network inside our office, and that’s important.” More than 4,000 people have utilized training, treatment and counseling services to address mental health issues, addiction issues, anger management, educational gaps and job skills, according to Gardner’s spokeswoman. Since August, SLATE has serviced 207 people at the courthouse and Gardner’s office. And since January, 2,350 people have received services from Victim Services.
This has not gone unnoticed by those who are entrenched in the fight to provide sufficient resources for people with mental illnesses and drug addictions, said Joe Yancey, longtime executive director of Places For People.
“It affects our work greatly because jails and prisons are the de facto mental health and addiction treatment institutions, and they are ill-prepared for that work,” Yancey said in an interview while he was leaving the forum. “We need to get upstream and start dealing with our families and addressing the toxic stress and trauma that people have experienced, because that is what ultimately results in the issues that we are dealing with here.”
Agencies like Places For People have been waiting “way too long” to see these initiatives come out of the criminal justice system, he said.
“It takes a person that understands where this all comes from and what is the origin to be able to see a different path,” Yancey said, “and Kim has done that and will continue to.”
Exclusion list expands to 59
During Gardner’s presentation, she mentioned the controversial exclusion list known, as a Brady List, that prohibits untrustworthy officers from presenting cases to the Circuit Attorney’s Office. The term “Brady List” is named for John Leo Brady, the defendant in the landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland. The decision in that case required prosecutors to inform the defense of any evidence that might exonerate the defendant. This includes a police officer who is known to be biased or racist, and Gardner added 22 names to the exclusion list following Buzzfeed’s publication of the Plain View Project story that tracked officers’ biased social media posts. There are 59 officers on the exclusion list “for actions that have caused concerns to the pursuit of justice,” according to her office. Her office and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department have established a review process for officers on the list, Gardner said.
St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden and Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards attended the forum. In an interview with The American afterwards, Hayden said that 50 percent of homicides are drug-related.
“I realize that people are selling drugs to supplement income,” Hayden said. “I can appreciate a public-health approach as it relates to violent crime. Some of this reform will help address crime.”
When asked about the exclusion list, he said, “She feels certain officers do not meet the bar of integrity that they are expecting. I can’t interfere with that. She certainly is entitled to have that viewpoint of certain officers.”
Hayden has appointed a person to be in contact with Gardner’s office about the list and is “working towards understanding if that’s a permanent situation or could it be re-evaluated over time,” he said.
When asked if he sees himself as a reform agent, Hayden said, “I don’t know if I see myself as a reform agent; I certainly have some goals as respect to our agency.”
Jamestown to STL
Before Gardner began her presentation, Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis City NAACP, set the mood for why her initiatives are so important to the black community. African Americans have always had to look at the justice system with a “crooked eye” because the scales have never been balanced for black folks, he said. When the NAACP examined Gardner’s Justice 2020 plan, Pruitt realized that things could be changing. He sees a glimmer of “some magnificent things that black folks have been trying to see come out of the justice system since the day we got off the boats in Jamestown.”
And that’s why the NAACP and black leaders are fighting so hard against the political attacks targeted at Gardner since she got in office.
“We’re not going to let anyone take that away from us,” Pruitt said, “especially not because somebody allegedly lied in a deposition. When people say, ‘Why do you all bring race into this?’ Well, in the history of the city, the first time they’ve ever prosecuted someone for this particular crime, they just happen to be black. I’m glad to know nobody white has ever lied in a deposition in this town.”