There’s a meme going around for Proposition A (the Right to Work proposition) leading up to the August 7 primary. It’s something like, “Do you own a helicopter? If so, vote for Prop A. If not, then don’t.”
That could easily apply to the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney race as well. Do you own a helicopter? If so, then vote for incumbent Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch. If not, then don’t.
Because somehow McCulloch has deluded himself into thinking that cash bail is not currently taking place in St. Louis County under his watch. Last week, McCulloch said on St. Louis Public Radio's Political Speaking podcast, “We don’t seek warrants or cash bail, or any kind of bail, on misdemeanors, and haven’t for decades.”
It’s a statement that he’s made consistently throughout his campaign for re-election, where he is being challenged by Ferguson city councilman and attorney Wesley Bell in the Democratic primary.
As the Ferguson movement revealed, people with money can almost always buy their way to freedom, regardless of the charges against them, under the cash bail model. Yet people without access to cash too often end up in jail simply because they cannot afford bail, or alternatively they must take out loans from bail companies that charge exorbitant fees, several civil rights organizations have argued.
Although individuals are presumed innocent in the eyes of the law, if they can’t afford cash bail, they will end up in jail for weeks or months. This wealth-based incarceration disproportionately punishes and targets black people and other people of color, as well as people from economically disadvantaged communities. Those trapped by this system often lose their families, jobs, and homes.
Last week, the ACLU of Missouri rolled out an online interactive tool that shows the use of cash bail and how long people stayed in the St. Louis County Jail while awaiting trial. The data analysis debunks McCulloch’s claim that his hands are clean.
These data sets were obtained from the St. Louis County jail system by the Justice Collaborative through an open records request and reflect criminal bookings in the county from 2010-2017.
The website allows people to search through the county’s jail stays for felonies, misdemeanors and citations, but an ACLU representative said that the best way to pinpoint decisions McCulloch has made is to look at misdemeanors.
According to the ACLU’s press release, the numbers show that in 2017, 419 people faced cash bail for misdemeanors, including 65 people receiving received cash bail for speeding offenses.
Since 2012, 2,775 people faced cash bail for misdemeanors. The average amount was $445.
From 2012-2017, 5,536 people faced pre-trial detention of one to five days for a misdemeanor. 683 people spent more than 20 days in jail with a misdemeanor charge pre-trial over the same time period.
And in 2017, 899 people sat behind bars for one to five days charged with a misdemeanor – comparatively, 1,836 people did not spend a day in jail during that same time period.
The St. Louis American asked McCulloch to comment on the ACLU’s numbers but did not receive a response.
In his formal response to an ACLU questionnaire, McCulloch basically states that he is the picture of perfect. He explains that misdemeanors or low-level felonies, including most drug charges, are issued on a summons and no bail or bond.
“When a cash bond is requested and authorized by a judge, the amount is appropriate to the charge, defendant’s history and individual circumstances, including the defendant’s financial situation,” he states.
In an interview with the Riverfront Times, Justice Collaborative senior legal counsel Jennifer Soble said that the numbers and her direct experience in the county’s courtrooms paint a different picture than McCulloch’s statements.
Hundreds of people who have been charged with misdemeanors in St. Louis County are sitting in jail today, Soble told the RFT. The jail data show that about 85 percent of those given a bond are released after spending an average of 39 days, she said.
“What happens during those intervening 39 days is they figure out if this person can scrape together the cash to get released,” Soble said. “After 39 days, everyone agrees they’re not going to pull it together financially – and then they get out.”
She added, “All of those people were literally sitting in jail for 39 days because they didn’t have money.”
While technically a judge sets the bond amount, McCulloch’s office and his assistant prosecutors exert significant influence, Soble told the RFT.
“Bond is set by a judge in an open hearing, one that the prosecutor participates in,” she said. “I’ve watched numerous hearings. The prosecutors have input on who gets held and who gets released, just like the prosecutor has input on any decision the judge makes.”
Jeffrey Mittman, ACLU of Missouri executive director, said the organization launched the tool to educate voters in this race.
“Voters deserve to know that their elected prosecuting attorney has not ended cash bail or effectively used the alternative drug court system,” Mittman said. “We strongly encourage both candidates to end the system of cash bail, which punishes those who can’t afford to buy their freedom and lets rich people walk free.”
Wesley Bell’s been ‘converted’
Bell said he will freely admit that his thinking on cash bail has been an “evolution.”
“When I came into being an attorney 17 years ago, I only knew the cash bail system,” Bell told The American. “That’s the culture. But what I’m proud of is that now that we are starting to be aware of mass incarceration and the effects that cash bail has on that.”
Once he started doing some research, he said it was quickly apparent that this system doesn’t work.
“I think that as an elected official and leader in general, we have to be open to data and research and what actually works,” Bell said. “And I’ll say that wholeheartedly. Once I did my research and got more information, hey, I am part of the converted.”
Bell said that the county can’t continue to punish poverty. While judges have the ultimate power to make these decisions, Bell said a prosecutor’s influence carries a lot of weight. People facing serious crimes are able to walk free because they can afford it, he said. But the nonviolent drug abuser who can’t afford to make a $1,500 bond faces lengthy jail time and losing a job.
“From a criminal justice standpoint, that makes us less safe,” Bell said. “That individual is more likely to re-offend.”
Through a separate open records request, the ACLU of Missouri also found that since McCulloch started his pre-charge, alternative drug court program in 2014, only 99 people have been enrolled. Only 36 people have completed the program, according to the ACLU. That averages to nine people per year.
Alternative Treatment Courts keep nonviolent drug- and alcohol-addicted individuals in treatment for long periods of time, and supervise them closely, according to county budget documents.
Part of this court includes the Veteran’s Treatment Court and according to the budget document, only 18 people have participated in the program between 2014 to 2016 – which was when numbers were available.
Cops say vote No on Prop A
Gary Wiegert – former St. Louis Police Officers Association president and the only member to have been expelled in its 50-year history – got hit with a cease and desist letter from the police union for appearing in a pro-Right To Work commercial. Copies of the letter were also sent to the out-of-state Super PAC funding the TV spots as well as all of the St. Louis area TV stations carrying the commercial. The SLPOA said it will ask its parent organization, The Missouri Fraternal Order of Police, to disseminate the letter to other TV stations around the state that are airing the misleading commercial.
Both local and state police unions voted to officially oppose Proposition A on the August 7 ballot. Prop A is the ballot initiative that would enact the anti-worker Right To Work bill into law in Missouri. Both unions encourage their members and police supporters to vote No on Prop A and “to ignore the deceptive ads featuring their disgraced former member that attempts to mislead voters into believing that cops support Right To Work and Prop A,” according to a statement.