No Show

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch was a no-show at the June 26 debate organized by the St. Louis County Reform Coalition, which includes the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, NAACP and other advocacy organizations.

“It wasn’t the first debate he declined,” said Jamala Rogers with the Organization for Black Struggle, which was one of the debate organizers. “He’s not willing to defend his position. He’s not willing to go before voters at a debate.”

The coalition invited the two candidates, McCulloch and Wesley Bell, who will vie in the upcoming August 7 primary that will decide the next prosecutor – as no Republican filed for the office.

The forum, held at St. Louis University School of Law, focused on the inequalities and injustices perpetrated by the criminal justice system. McCulloch cancelled at the last minute, Rogers said.

McCulloch might want to take not of the shocking defeat of Rep. Joe Crowley (D- New York), the fourth-ranking and 10-term incumbent member of the U.S. House Democratic leadership, who was defeated by a 28-year-old newcomer, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He was also complacent, and also skipped a debate with his opponent, who was a former Bernie Sanders campaign organizer who he outspent 8-to-1.

“This was the date that his office gave us,” Rogers said. “We had it at SLU because the organizers thought having it at SLU, where he was an alum, would make him feel more welcomed. What does it take to get him to say ‘yes’?”

Bell heard from people who have been impacted by policies that McCulloch initiated or upheld. Two wrongfully-convicted death row inmates who served decades in jail before released – Joe Amrine and Reggie Griffin – spoke about their experiences because McCulloch “has been zealous about the death penalty,” Rogers said.

“People don’t think this could happen, but I’m telling you that it did happen,” said Griffin, who was exonerated from a murder charge in 2013. “Take a close look at what’s going on. It can happen to one of you or one of your loved ones.”

Griffin asked Bell if he would be willing to open and review old death-penalty cases.

Bell said, “Absolutely.”

McCulloch losing the so-called drug war

Despite McCulloch’s aggressive prosecutions of drug-related crimes, the opioid epidemic that is sweeping through this country is also ravaging St. Louis County – cutting across gender, race and economic status lines. That is why the Justice Collaborative, a national nonprofit dedicated to criminal reform, has focused its attention on St. Louis, especially in light of McCulloch’s upcoming re-election.

“McCulloch continues to respond to the crisis through draconian and discredited drug policies,” according to a statement from the organization this week.

The collaborative points out that in 2016, St. Louis County filed new 3,159 drug prosecutions, including citations, misdemeanors, and felonies. The number is up from 2015, when St. Louis County filed only 2,274 cases. Well over 2,000 of those cases were for simple possession of drugs. These cases are not resulting in community-based treatment, the group stated. Approximately 35 percent of the people sent to prison in 2016 in Missouri were sent there explicitly for drug treatment, not because they posed a danger to the community.

Kelly Dineen, the director of the Health Law program at Creighton University School of Law and a supporter of the collaborative, said McCulloch’s strategies are the same ones that have failed in the United States for almost a century.

“We criminalize a disease and spend huge amounts of money and just cause more harm,” said Dineen, who previously worked at SLU Law for many years.

This money could be instead used on comprehensive treatment options, she said, but McCulloch, and America in general, strives to punish people for what they consider a moral weakness instead of a medical problem.

“We are the only country in the world that treats addiction like a crime,” Dineen said. “And it shows. We have the worse statistics to show for it. No one is going to win the so-called war on drugs through criminal means.”

Nine out of every 10 inmates in Missouri’s correctional system need drug abuse treatment, the Justice Collaborative stated. And not surprisingly, the rampant over-incarceration of people who are drug dependent has led to an opioid epidemic within the prison system itself. Missouri is one of a handful of states that has a rising prison population, and it has the fastest growing female prison population in the country. The Missouri Department of Corrections is already operating at 105 percent capacity. Women are being arrested and prosecuted at alarming rates. Between 2010 and 2015, arrests of women for drug offenses increased 49 percent. 

The St. Louis region has become the leader in opioid-related deaths in Missouri. Between 2012 and 2016, more people have died from opioid overdoses in St. Louis County than any other jurisdiction in Missouri, the group points out.

“It remains to be seen whether McCulloch will alter his approach in light of mounting evidence that the opioid epidemic is a public health crisis, not a criminal one,” the organization stated.

Opioid taskforce 

On June 26, St. Louis County Councilman Mark Harder introduced a resolution to establish an emergency opioid task force, in what he called “a true bi-partisan non-political effort.” 

In the resolution, the council requested an emergency appropriation of $1 million and other immediate resources to rapidly establish a task force and employ recommendations (subject to Council approval) to assist law enforcement and medical professionals. The task force will be established by July 3, with a plan and comprehensive road map due by August 31.

“Opioid addiction kills – indiscriminate of political party, skin color, or economic status,” Harder said. “Our citizens are suffering and dying in our streets, parks and homes every day because of this crisis. We can no longer wait for some silver bullet. We are asking for the full cooperation of the County Executive and his staff.”

Dark money 

Eric Greitens resigned as Missouri Governor, but residents are being left in the dark about alleged crimes that were previously being investigated at a state and local level – which have since been dropped. A local attorney is suing a nonprofit organization believed to have been the channel for Greitens’ dark money in order to get records on behalf of state residents.

Elad Gross, a former assistant attorney general in Missouri, filed a petition in Cole County Circuit Court on June 22 against A New Missouri, Inc., a nonprofit where members of former Governor Greitens’ campaign staff and administration worked and used the organization’s nonprofit status to spend millions of dollars influencing Missouri policy.

“Unlike campaign committees, A New Missouri and other dark money organizations do not disclose their donors,” Gross said in a statement.

On Monday, the head of the Missouri House of Representatives committee that has been investigating Greitens’ various alleged schemes released a letter stating they are ending their investigation but that the chairman will file an ethics complaint against the former governor.

In a letter sent Monday to members of the House Special Investigative Committee on Oversight, chairman Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, called A New Missouri, “a criminal enterprise from its inception – designed to illegally skirt donation limits and conceal the identities of major donors to Eric Greitens and ballot initiatives relating to right to work that were supported by the former governor.” 

Hours before the governor resigned, a Cole County Circuit Court judge ordered A New Missouri to turn over its records to the House committee. But days after the governor left office, the House dropped its request for records without resolving their investigation.

In addition to the Missouri House, two Missouri prosecutors dropped investigations related to the Greitens campaign, and, despite inquiries, Attorney General Josh Hawley has not opened an investigation into A New Missouri.

“Missourians deserve to know who is influencing their government,” Gross said. “When our government serves powerful people who hide their identities, we get failing schools in poor neighborhoods, hospital shutdowns in rural Missouri, crumbling roads, healthcare for some, opportunity for the wealthy and the lucky, and far too many people who stop participating in making Missouri better because hope is a distant, faded feeling. That time is over.”

Gross sent A New Missouri, its directors, and its attorneys several requests for documents citing Missouri’s nonprofit laws starting on June 2. He has not received a response to any of his requests. Gross is asking the court to order A New Missouri to turn over its records.

“This lawsuit is not the end,” Gross said. “Missourians are going to expose the influence large, unidentified donations have on our government. We’re taking back our state.”

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