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Government, Politics & Issues

St. Louis County Prosecutor Seeks Boost In Funding

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell said he needs a lot more money to run his office properly.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell wants at least $1.4 million more in next year’s budget than the county executive has recommended his office receive. 

Sam Page has included $11.9 million in general funding in his 2020 spending proposal to the county council. At a county council budget hearing Thursday, Bell asked to have that bumped to $13.3 million.

In a letter to the council, Bell wrote that St. Louis County has one of the lowest ratios of prosecutors to citizens among large municipalities in the U.S. An internal analysis shows there is one attorney for every 221 cases, he said.

“We are one of the most underfunded prosecutor’s offices in the country,” Bell said. 

If he gets the funding he wants, Bell said he would hire 21 more staff members, including 11 new attorneys. He would also bring on two investigators, a data analyst and three social workers, according to budget documents provided at a county hearing Thursday.

About seven of the new positions would support programs that provide alternatives to jail and prison — one of Bell’s top priorities. 

The two Republican county council members present for Bell’s budget hearing — Presiding Officer Ernie Trakas of South County and Mark Harder of Ballwin — had pointed questions for how Bell might already be spending his office’s money. 

Since the beginning of the year, Bell has spent more money on travel and restaurant dining than his predecessor, Bob McCulloch, did, according to an analysis done by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has also received parking tickets while using a county-provided vehicle, according to other media reports.

Harder asked Bell if he was using any of his office accounts to cover parking tickets. Bell responded that he had paid those parking tickets personally.

Members of Bell’s staff who had also worked for McCulloch told the county council that the current prosecutor was using his funding in a similar manner to the way the previous prosecutor did — only Bell was being scrutinized more for it. 

Expanded diversion programs planned

Bell, a Democrat who took office in January, has already started making use of diversion programs and deferred prosecution — in which people agree to complete behavior and drug programs in lieu of a criminal conviction. 

He’s also turning more to alternative courts — such as drug court, veterans court, mental health court and DWI court — to provide an option outside of incarceration for people convicted of low-level crimes. Bell said alternative court enrollment is up 50% from 2018, when McColluch was in office.

“We can continue this kind of work, but we need the bodies in order to do it. We’ve had to create a diversion program that was not budgeted for. We had to repurpose bodies and take from other units,” Bell said. 

The prosecutor believes diversion and alternative courts are a more effective way of carrying out public safety than locking people up. The programs also ultimately save the county money, he said. 

The county jail population dropped 29% over the past year — some of which Bell attributes to his use of incarceration alternatives.

“We don’t directly get that savings. That savings goes to the county,” Bell said.

In addition to wanting to hire more staff, Bell said he intends to purchase 60 new iPads, costing the office around $84,000. He’s also proposed spending about $8,700 more on telephone accounts than his predecessor so he can provide attorneys work cellphones, according to budget documents provided.

Bell could use some of the general funding already allocated to him in the county executive’s budget proposal to cover these technology upgrades. But he may also tap three other funds that total $167,000 and are under his control. 

Follow Julie O'Donoghue on Twitter: @jsodonoghue

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