By Jack Seigel
Wesley Bell’s election as County Prosecutor was a historic victory and his campaign drew national attention. One reason why is the unique and unilateral power prosecutors hold in our government. Bell can make broad changes to how defendants are treated, processed, charged and prosecuted, and so he has the ability to reform the criminal justice system and keep his campaign promises. A central promise of his campaign was to end cash bail and Bell has pledged to do that for nonviolent offenders as soon as he takes office in January. Cash Bail reform is rooted in the reality that the current justice system treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent. Instead, pretrial detention should be focused on who posses a threat to public safety, not who has the financial ability to pay.
Unfortunately, the fragmented government in St Louis County means there are more than 80 individual municipal courts and all of them can hold people in jail before trial. They should follow Bell’s lead and end cash bail individually. Innocent until proven guilty means no one should sit in jail before being convicted of a crime because of their socio-economic status. So even though Bell’s decision is a step in the right direction, every municipal court in the county needs to follow suit to effectively end cash bail in St. Louis County. And justice demands that they do so.
But court reform shouldn’t stop there. Research conducted after the murder of Mike Brown revealed that many municipalities relied on fines and fees to fund their municipal government. This is an ugly consequence of fragmentation. Municipalities resort to ticketing. And those tickets, often for nonviolent offenses like unpaid tickets or trivial matters like high grass, can land people in jail. The results are often devastating – lost jobs, lost housing and all because of an unpaid ticket that should not have been written in the first place. And these tickets and subsequent jail time disproportionately affect people of color. So additional reforms are needed, beyond eliminating cash bail.
Fortunately, organizations have been studying this problem for years and have recommendations. Forward Through Ferguson calls for collecting municipal debts like civil debts, eliminating incarceration for minor offenses and establishing alternative sentencing options. All of which would go a long way towards making the court system work equitably for all of us. They also call for the consolidation of municipal courts. Arch City Defenders recommends that courts asses someone’s ability to pay before incarcerating them, something the constitution requires. They also call for alternative options to reduce incarceration. So the solutions exist. The question now is if there is the political will to eliminate cash bail throughout St. Louis County and create a justice system that treats everyone equally, regardless of race or class. As the prosecutor, Wesley Bell can do a lot, but it will take all of us to demand and then create a court system that pursues Justice for All.
Jack Seigel is a community organizer and political consultant. Born and raised in St Louis, he is currently a first-year MSW student at Washington University. His interests are progressive public policy and criminal justice reform.