Updated at 9:30 p.m. with Bell's appearance at the County Council meeting Tuesday night.
St. Louis County’s newly inaugurated prosecuting attorney, Wesley Bell, has hit the ground running since his Jan. 1 inauguration. The first African-American to hold the post, Bell said his work so far has involved a lot of listening.
“There’s a lot of great people in [the county prosecutor’s office], and we want to make sure we take advantage of the institutional knowledge in that office,” he said on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “And so I’ve been very deliberate about meeting with every single person in that office.”
When host Don Marsh followed up by asking about Bell’s dismissal of an assistant prosecutor responsible for presenting evidence to a grand jury in the wake of the police-involved shooting death of Michael Brown in 2014, Bell said he didn’t think it appropriate to comment on the employee matter at this time. When pressed about any connections between the dismissal and the 2014 case, he added that “there’s no connection.”
He emphasized that his current focus is implementing the reforms he campaigned on during his recent race against the former prosecutor, Bob McCulloch, who had been in office for 28 years.
The fact that Bell will not be seeking the death penalty in the case against Thomas Bruce, who is charged with killing one woman and sexually assaulting others at a Catholic Supply store in west St. Louis County two months ago, has sparked recent news coverage. But Bell said he’s made his position on the death penalty “very clear” from the get-go.
“And there’s two things we know about [the death penalty],” the prosecutor added. “One is that it is primarily disproportionately implemented with respect to poor people – and that can mean anyone – as well as minorities. And it is not a deterrent. When we look at the jurisdictions that have the death penalty, we see higher homicide rates.”
He noted that as much as he feels for victims’ families, the death penalty is a policy “that just costs taxpayers millions of dollars” and “doesn’t give closure” because of processes that can go on for decades.
“What we’re going to do is use all of the resources in [the prosecutor’s] office to make sure that people who commit those horrific crimes go to jail for the rest of their life without the possibility of parole,” he said, again emphasizing his respect and empathy for victims as well as an understanding of “personally want[ing] revenge.”
“But I think we have to be above that and beyond that and we have to look at what’s best for our community,” Bell said.
His move toward trying child-support cases as civil rather than criminal ones has also garnered attention, but here too Bell said the policy shift shouldn’t come as a surprise given his campaign.
“What I would ask [of critics on the issue] is: What part of alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent and low-level offenders was I not clear about?” Bell said. “That’s what I ran on.”
“Our office will use our resources to help custodial parents collect their child support – that will not change,” Bell added. “There’s two ways that we can do that: We can do it through a criminal context or we can do it through a civil-contempt process … for the worst-case offenders, both can result in incarceration. That parent who has the means, who just refuses to take care of the children, both of those routes can end in incarceration.
“The difference is that if you go through the criminal route, that individual not only can be incarcerated but now will have a felony on their record, and we know how tough that is to get a job. … If we go through the civil-contempt side, and that same person is incarcerated, [and then] the light switch goes on, they want to do well, [then] that’s not going to hurt them – it’s not going to hurt their opportunities to get jobs, get housing, go back to school.”
He noted that the feedback he gets from custodial parents is that “they just want the support.”
“They don’t necessarily want the individual to get a felony conviction and go to jail,” Bell said. “But they do want the support. And that’s important. And so I think there’s a way that we can use our resources to effectuate what actually will keep families together.”
He touched on other criminal-justice reform efforts as well, praising “a great team” and various community partners for “jumping into the fray to help us provide resources so that we can offer more treatment and individualized treatment, which is so important.”
“Everything that these organizations are doing have no cost to taxpayers – these are grants and [community] organizations that are investing in these programs,” Bell said. “And so I’m really proud about that. Because when we look at where most of our crime is originating, the genesis is often drugs … people start at low-level crimes, [and] they progress to the violent crimes. So if we can address the root cause, we’ll see our crime rates go down and we’re going to help people as well.”
Bell made a presentation before the St. Louis County Council on Tuesday night asking for $1.5 million to hire additional attorneys, support staff and investigators. He said the new staffers will help steer people toward treatment options, as opposed to incarceration — which he added will ultimately save St. Louis County money.
When asked about the recent vote by office staff to join a local police union, Bell expressed support for workers’ rights to unionize and organize and said that “the reception [since he started as prosecutor] has just been amazing” in the office among attorneys and support staff. But he added that “there are some concerns with the particular choice of a union.”
“We’re talking about real and potential conflicts,” Bell said. “And as prosecutors, one of our roles, our duties, is to serve as checks on law enforcement. And not only does it create conflicts in certain situations, but there’s also the appearance of impropriety. And as prosecutors across the country are fighting the perception that there’s not independence between prosecutors and law enforcement, I think there is a concern … as many citizens have said, it doesn’t look good in addition to the conflict.
“So that’s something that we’re going to work with in good faith, and we’ll make sure that those issues get addressed in a manner that respects their rights. But at the same time we have to make sure that we’re able to do the job and duties of the prosecutor.”
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex Heuer, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.