Opinion: For the first time in 12 years, Cole County has the opportunity to transform its justice system

By Sara Baker

America has become the world’s largest incarcerator.

The old approach to criminal justice has damaged lives and has cost billions of dollars, with few positive outcomes. It is time for a new way of thinking. We need to demand a bold vision for smart criminal justice reform now.

Voters in Cole County agree. For the first time in more than a decade, they will choose a new prosecuting attorney.

That’s why ACLU of Missouri launched a voter education campaign here in Cole County.

Prosecuting attorneys are some of the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system. They have the discretion to pile up charges, push for a plea deal, or advocate for someone to receive treatment for their drug addiction.
This is not a partisan issue.

Even a couple days of incarceration can have severe consequences for employment and on families. Finding alternatives to incarceration like drug treatment and supports for individuals experiencing mental illness, would ensure fewer people are exposed to these harms while reducing the nearly 6,000 people booked in Cole County each year.

It’s clear that both the people of Cole County and the prosecuting attorney candidates are committed to change.

In October, the ACLU of Missouri hosted a forum featuring both candidates. In addition to answering a questionnaire before the event, both DK Hirner and Locke Thompson showed up to hear from their voters. The people came with questions.

When asked about increasing transparency in the office of the prosecuting attorney, the candidates agreed. The sun must shine on the dusty case files of the Cole County prosecuting attorney’s office.

When asked about increased treatment for addiction, both candidates agreed. Cole County cannot prosecute its way out of a drug crisis.

When asked if they would consider implementing pre-plea diversion, the candidates committed to considering it for Cole County. When asked if they supported increased funding for our state’s broken public defender system, both candidates said they would not stand in the way.

When students from Lincoln University spoke up, explaining that they felt targeted by police and that they felt racial profiling directly impacted their campus, the candidates responded strongly. Racial bias has no place in Cole. Youth have constitutional rights and those must be upheld.

From the forum, it was clear to see that Cole County voters don’t want to see clergy locked up for protest, they don’t want to see students targeted for low-level marijuana offenses, they don’t think that justice always means locking up the wrongdoer.

Cole County is ripe for innovation. The next prosecuting attorney is ready to study smart reforms to decrease incarceration and protect public safety.
We urge the voters of Cole County to check out www.PickYourPA.org and learn more about the candidates, then, on Nov. 6, vote.

No matter who wins this race, the people now have promises to start a new path, to pave a way for smart justice. The ACLU will continue to hold whoever wins accountable to turning those promises into reality, long after Election Day.

Sara Baker is the Legislative and Policy Director for ACLU of Missouri