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Gardner Pledges More Court Diversion, Less Cash Bail

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, left, listens as the Rev. Phillip Duvall addresses the importance of diversion programs on Jan. 30, 2019.
Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, left, listens as the Rev. Phillip Duvall addresses the importance of diversion programs on Wednesday.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner says her office will stop requesting cash bail for many low-level felonies, such as drug possession.

Flanked by criminal-justice reform advocates Wednesday at a church in north St. Louis, Gardner also pledged to boost the number of people accepted into her office’s diversion programs, which combine probation-like requirements with access to services like job training and mental health care to keep people out of jail.

“I know that a history of high arrest rates, high conviction rates and lengthy prison stays have not made our city safer,” Gardner said. “In fact, in many respects, the heavy-handed criminal-justice responses of the past have played a significant role in destabilizing families, neighborhoods and communities in our city.”

Gardner’s office had already started issuing summonses for misdemeanor charges, doing so in 56 percent of the cases her office handled in 2018, according to data she provided. She wants to use summonses in 65 percent of the lowest-level felony cases this year. Defendants who get a summons do not have to post cash bail, but they do have to show up for court or risk arrest.

“We can’t just do it by ourselves, so we have to work with the public defender’s office, the private defense bar, as well as the courts, because the courts makes the ultimate decision,” she said.

Gardner’s announcement came the same week the city was sued in federal court over its cash bail system, which advocates say is based solely on ability to pay, rather than the seriousness of the crime or whether the person is a flight risk.

The plan to boost diversion is welcome news to the Rev. Phillip Duvall, the social justice chair of the Missionary Baptist State Convention of Missouri.

“The scales of justice as we see it have not been balanced. That’s why we call it criminal-justice reform,” he said. “And we’re grateful that we have brought partners in from other parts of the country that can give us this data that shows that it works effectively.”

Gardner said her policy decisions are driven in part by data analysis done by the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based advocacy group. Since March 2017, the group has had access to Gardner’s case-management system, evaluating data like the number of cases police presented to the office, and how many individuals were screened for those diversion programs.

“Circuit Attorney Gardner was one of the first to raise her hand and say, 'I want your help — come into my office, talk to my staff; I am going to make my entire case-management system available to you, so that you can analyze the data so that we can use real numbers to drive change,'” said Jamila Hodge, the director of Vera’s Prosecution Reform Program.

Gardner said Vera’s analysis led her to change the way her office handles cases where a witness or other key evidence wasn’t immediately available. Quite often, she said, those cases would linger in a “taken-under-advisement” status, where someone could be arrested again months after an initial arrest.

Going forward, Gardner said, only cases where there’s more investigation needed to make a charging decision will be taken under advisement. The office will begin to immediately refuse cases when there is not enough evidence to move forward, and certain low-level cases like marijuana possession under 100 grams. In 2018, she said, her office declined 64 percent of the cases referred for prosecution.

Follow Rachel on Twitter:@rlippmann

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