Progressive prosecutors are a rare species in Missouri, according to Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney Jean Peters Baker.
“You’re looking at the delegation,” she joked on March 27, sitting alongside her two counterparts from St. Louis city and county, Kimberly Gardner and Wesley Bell, at Washington University School of Law. The trio had convened for a panel discussion entitled “Prosecutorial Power in Transforming the Criminal Justice System,” and to a packed crowd inside the school’s moot courtroom, they described some of their new policies and ongoing challenges.
Peters Baker, who was first elected in 2012, said her office has begun referring certain cases to neighborhood accountability boards. In this restorative-justice pilot project, low-level offenders meet with the victims and community members to converse and find ways to make as right as possible the harm that has occurred.
Inside her office, Peters Baker said, she has arranged for prosecutors to undergo poverty and parole-simulation workshops to better understand the defendants they prosecute. In addition, she has sent her prosecutors to visit homicide crime scenes. The goal there, she said, was not to make them play detective, but rather to be available to engage the victims’ family members at the yellow tape, right at the moment when the reality of their loss becomes “seared into their minds.”
“That’s when the relationship begins,” she said. “We owe them that — that kind of dedication.”
Gardner, elected in 2016, said her office in St. Louis has worked with the Vera Institute for Justice, a criminal justice-reform consultancy, to get better data on which to base decisions. She said she is working with the public defender’s office to agree on bond reductions for nonviolent offenders. Like Peters Baker, she is trying to institute more restorative-justice approaches — for example, pushing offenders to attend discussions with victims’ families and to complete any community service in their own neighborhoods.
For some of the younger offenders, Gardner noted, prison and probation are viewed as a normal part of life, so “having to face the community is harder than going to jail.”
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell was the newest member of the panel, having begun his term on Jan. 1. He said he views crime as a public-health crisis, so he is pushing all units in his office to coordinate with each other and with outside service providers to tackle the problem holistically. He has hired a director of community engagement to build a bridge between his prosecutors and citizens. He also said that his office is ramping up diversion programs and opening up substance-abuse treatment to offenders above age 25 who previously were ineligible.
Bell said deep reform requires smart messaging.
“Sometimes Democrats and those of us on the left, we can be passionate about the issues, but we don’t always sell it,” he said.
For example, when campaigning last year in western St. Louis County — much of which is white and conservative — his pitch was that taxpayers could save money by halting the incarceration of nonviolent offenders.
“When you show the data, everything leads back to criminal justice reform,” he said. “So we’re on the right side of history, but we have to continue to sell that narrative as well.”
The discussion was moderated by Professor Peter Joy, the vice dean for academic affairs and director of the school’s Criminal Justice Clinic. The three Missouri prosecutors were joined on the panel by Adam Foss, a former prosecutor in Massachusetts and the founder and president of Prosecutor Impact, a not-for-profit organization that aims to train prosecutors to make decisions that are more “compassionate, fair and informed.”