Bell, staff share budgetary presentation for criminal justice reform

CLAYTON, Mo. – St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell has officially held his new position for 16 days.

Since being sworn-in to office on January 1st, Bell has made moves for change, which he promised to constituents during his campaign. Some of those changes have included his new policies such as bail/bond, where associate prosecuting attorneys will issue summons for court dates instead of warrants for arrest on all misdemeanors as well as class D and E felonies; marijuana, where the office will not prosecute the possession of less than 100 grams of marijuana in any capacity; overcharging, where prosecutors will only file charges that they believe can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt at time of filing, and child support, where the office will no longer criminally prosecute the failure to pay child support.

During the St. Louis County Council meeting on Tuesday, Bell and his chief of staff, Sam Alton, stood before council members to present their budgetary presentation entitled, “An Oath to Service” Justice and Community Prosecution.

“Our charge is to maximize what this office can do to [reach the goal of making St. Louis County a safer place]… Now that we are in the office, we really want to evaluate what this office has, the resources and things it needs,” Bell said. “It’s not enough to be a good office. I think our residents deserve the prosecuting office to be [a] gold standard.”

Bell and his staff provided the council with a packet of their presentation, outlining their research which includes:
I. CURRENT STATUS OF THE OFFICE OF THE PROSECUTING ATTORNEY AND WHAT NEEDS TO CHANGE
II. SUMMARY OF DEFERRED PROSECUTION & DIVERSION (“DPD”)
III. SUMMARY OF PREVIOUS ADMINISTRATION’S TREATMENT COURT POLICY
IV. STATISTICS
V. THE DPD PLAN UNDER ST. LOUIS COUNTY PROSECUTING ATTORNEY WESLEY BELL
VI. BUDGETARY REQUEST(s)

Bell and Alton both explained to the council the goals of the new prosecuting attorney’s office, which are to streamline and modernize county’s criminal justice system; prioritize victim services; address violent crime and opioid epidemic and keep families together.

The St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office is asking the council for “approximately $1,588,262.00 annually” in order to accomplish their referenced goals, as well as to “facilitate, modernize and maximize” the office and their DPD program while at the same time ensuring they are using all their efforts to make St. Louis County safe.

“Everything kind of begins and ends with our office [to] continue to account public safety,” Alton said. “What we are requesting in terms of support staff and attorneys to work in the office, it will end up saving the county millions of dollars.”

In the report, the office outlined exactly where the $1,588,262.00 would be going towards. It is listed as follows:

  • 4 attorneys and 3 masters of social work (2 drug diversion attorneys, 1 mental health, 1 veterans and DWI) at an annual projected cost of $614,566.00;
  • 5 trial attorneys to assist with managing handling felony and misdemeanor cases at an annual projected cost of $401,654.00;
  • 4 staff positions to assist with administrative tasks at an annual projected cost of $173,442.00;
  • 2 warrant office attorneys at an annual projected cost of $178,610.00;
  • 1 data analyst at an annual projected cost of $70,000.00; and
  • Smartphones and iPads for attorneys and staff to modernize and streamline the office.

Both Bell and Alton explained that the request for a budget increase will add staffing positions to the office, which will allow “critical charging of cases while focusing on violent crimes, victims and public safety;” lower the prosecutor to citizen rate from its current 1 for every 17,838 to 1 for every 13,144 and reduce the county’s overall cost.

According to the report that the prosecuting attorney’s office submitted, similar programs in Chicago and Philadelphia have experienced reductions of 30 to 40 percent.

“There are 56 attorneys currently in the office. One number that we were able to run is that each attorney is assigned approximately 250 cases,” Alton said. “It is very hard to focus on crime and focus on the victims like we want to focus, in a way that needs to be done and that we want to do it, when each attorney is handling up to 250 cases at any given time.”

Chairman Sam Page noted that the opioid epidemic is a matter which the council is very concerned with and taking seriously. They are working with their own task force as well as the St. Louis County Public Health Department with different programs and searches for resources.

“The option to defer appropriate individuals to drug treatment and out of the jail population is the right thing to do and will save us a lot of money, and anyone who is paying attention knows that we need to find some money in the budget,” he said.

Councilwoman Lisa Clancy told Bell and Alton that she has seen many positive bottom lines in the report. She said she is excited to look over the report’s evidence and data more thoroughly.

“It’s the right direction for us to go in,” she said.