© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Gardner And Carl Both Tout Justice Reform In Race For St. Louis Circuit Attorney

Kim Gardner and Mary Pat Carl in a photo collage.
File Photo / Evie Hemphill
St. Louis Public Radio
Kim Gardner, left and Mary Pat Carl are running for the Democratic nomination for St. Louis circuit attorney. Both women ran for the post in 2016 as well.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner won election in 2016 as part of a national wave of prosecutors who promised criminal justice reform.

Now, in a rematch of that Democratic primary on Tuesday, she finds herself facing a familiar opponent, Mary Pat Carl, who has her own vision for using the criminal justice system as a tool for second chances.

“Right now, there are people entering the criminal justice system, maybe for the first time, who are at a crossroads in their life,” said Carl, a former prosecutor in the office and now an attorney at Husch Blackwell. “If we surround them with tools and avenues to success, we can turn what could be a life-defining moment, the hardest moment of their lives, into them finding their own resilience.”

Critical to those second chances are diversion programs. Details vary, but they generally allow people to avoid a criminal record by pairing probation-like requirements with support such as mental health treatment, job training and education.

“I look at crime as a public health crisis,” Gardner said. “So we brought in leading experts from around the country to address the root causes that would drive individuals into the criminal justice system.”

Gardner’s predecessor, Jennifer Joyce, launched the first diversion programs in 2015. Gardner takes credit for giving the prosecutor’s office a larger role.

“When we bring those systems inside our office, one, we hold people accountable, but at the same time, what we’re doing, we’re actually delivering the services that many of the individuals coming to the criminal justice system lack,” she said.

While a staunch supporter of diversion, Carl would focus more on working with outside partners.

“When we talk about tackling some of these larger problems, it’s about forming relationships, forming partnerships, and letting everybody do what they do best,” she said.

Carl was with the prosecutor’s office for 15 years, including a year under Gardner.

“I was very excited about a lot of what she wanted to bring and was willing to kind of put my ego in my pocket and support her in that change,” Carl said. And then weeks ticked by, and none of us had a clear direction of where the office was going.”

Turnover isn’t uncommon in the prosecutor’s office. New attorneys get trial experience, then often leave for the more lucrative private sector. And higher-level departures often occur after a change at the top. But by some measures, Gardner has had an unprecedented amount, including people she hired. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported earlier this week that in Gardner’s 3 1/2 years in office, more than 80 attorneys had left.

“I want to really focus on the good men and women who stayed in my office,” Gardner said. “It’s not about who left. It’s about who stayed. And I find disrespect when anyone could continue to ask me about the people who left. If my opponent was so reform-minded, why did she leave?”

Keeping St. Louis safe

The impact of diversion programs on crime in the city isn’t clear. While the numbers were down through May of this year, they took a sharp turn upward in June, driven by a spike in violent crime. The city is now on pace to have well over 200 homicides in 2020, compared to 194 last year.

Some of the blame lies with Gardner’s office, Carl said. Too few of the cases she takes to trial result in convictions, she said.

“When people feel that justice isn’t going to happen downtown in a courthouse, they’re more likely to pick up a gun and seek retaliation on their own,” she said.

Gardner said the focus on conviction rates is part of Carl’s “tough on crime rhetoric fear-mongering of the past.”

“You have to understand, we have to attack the root causes,” Gardner said. “Until you do that, it doesn’t matter how many police you have, it doesn’t matter how many prosecutions you win, it’s not going to scratch the surface of violent crime in the city of St. Louis.”

Gardner calls those supporting her opponent a “who’s who of mass incarceration.” But one group noticeably absent this year is the St. Louis Police Officers Association. The union backed Carl in 2016, but neither woman sought its endorsement this year.

“I got painted a picture of me in 2016 that wasn’t accurate,” Carl said. “The St. Louis American wrote an article that said my endorsements were doing me a disservice because I was much more progressive than originally appeared.”

The union and Gardner have been at odds since her election, especially over her refusal to hear cases from certain officers. Its business manager, Jeff Roorda, consistently attacks her in ways that Gardner says are racist and sexist. In fact, Gardner sued Roorda, the city and five other defendants in federal court last year alleging a racist conspiracy against her reform agenda. A motion to dismiss the case remains pending.

Chris McDaniel
St. Louis Public Radio
Jeff Roorda, the president of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, has been a frequent critic of Gardner. She has attempted to tie him to her opponent, Mary Pat Carl.

The backlash is expected, Gardner said, and in some ways shows that she’s doing the right thing.

“It’s about police accountability, and my job is to be a minister of justice,” she said. “And the only thing that gets the benefit of the doubt is justice. So yes, I’ve made some adversarial relationships in the police department and in the community.”

Carl recently tweeted that although she believed Gardner had been “ineffective” at reforming the city’s justice system, “I stand in solidarity against the abhorrent sexism and racism she faces on a daily basis.”

Greitens’ long shadow

Although former Gov. Eric Greitens has been out of office for more than two years, the fallout from his 2018 invasion of privacy case continues. William Tisaby, an outside investigator Gardner hired to handle the case, faces perjury charges, and it remains a possibility that Gardner herself will have to testify at his trial.

Carl said she doesn’t see the case having any impact on the election.

“We need to start moving past an Eric Greitens world,” she said. “We've got 60 children shot, and we're still talking about Eric Greitens.”

But Greitens recently effectively inserted himself into the primary, attacking Gardner for her decision to charge Mark and Patricia McCloskey with felonies after they pointed weapons at Black Lives Matter protesters on their private street in the Central West End.

That decision prompted a fierce backlash from a number of current Republican politicians in Missouri. Gov. Mike Parson pledged to pardon the McCloskeys. Attorney General Eric Schmitt demanded the case be dismissed in a court filing. U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley demanded a civil rights investigation into Gardner.

Gardner called both the Greitens and McCloskeys cases an example of her willingness to pursue equal justice.

“It’s not who you are, or what your title is, or your socio-economic status or your station in life,” she said. “It’s about justice.”

Whoever wins will face Republican Daniel Zdrodowski in November.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.