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Federal program to reduce gun crime gets city committee approval

Four hand guns on a red cloth.
St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department Facebook

St. Louis is a step closer to accepting a grant from the federal government to help battle gun violence in the city.

The Board of Aldermen's public employees committee on Thursday authorized the city to accept a $417,512 SMART Prosecution grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, part of the Justice Department. The full Board of Aldermen must also approve the grant.

The funds will help the circuit attorney's office hire staff to set up a diversion program that would help certain people avoid felony gun convictions. Details still have to be worked out, but the participants would have to complete probation-like requirements to have the charge cleared from their records. Jennifer Joyce, the prosecutor, has already started a similar program for non-gun-related felonies using existing staff in her office. 

"We all know and understand that that first felony conviction for many can be an economic death sentence," said Rachel Smith, the chief of the community partnerships bureau. "And some people, you know what, they may really deserve that. They're part of a gang, they're part of a lifestyle. They are shooting up our streets. But there are some that may be carrying for other reasons, like status or protection or ignorance. We really want to use good evidence-based analysis that helps up sort the two."

In addition to the cost of a crime analyst to help with the sorting, the grant will fund a social service manager.

"If you're going to do a diversion program that gets at the heart of criminal behavior, you really need someone who can work with and identify the needs of a person, like education, mental health, things that would be barriers to them otherwise," Smith said.

The grant lasts for just two years, but Smith said if the program works, the office will find the money necessary.

“If this is the best thing to do with our office, we will try to find a way to make it work," Smith said.

St. Louis was one of four cities to receive the grant. Prosecutors in the New York borough of Brooklyn, Baltimore and San Diego, Calif., all received similar levels of funding. 

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

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