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Racial justice coalition wants to hold prosecutors accountable with new report

The State of Missouri flag waves outside the Mel Carnahan Courthouse on Thursday, May 4, 2023, in downtown St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The Missouri flag waves outside the Mel Carnahan Courthouse last May in downtown St. Louis. The Prosecuting Organizing Table, a coalition of racial justice groups, has released the first of its reports aimed at holding prosecutors in St. Louis and St. Louis County accountable.

A coalition of racial justice groups in the St. Louis region has released its Prosecutor Watch: An Introduction report.

It's the first of a planned series taking a critical look at the St. Louis and St. Louis County prosecutor offices.

“We hope that the prosecutors in St. Louis city and county take this opportunity to make their offices more transparent and accountable,” said Jia Lian Yang, the director of storytelling and communications for Forward Through Ferguson. “We’ve actually never seen that in the region, and at this point this is a standard that we are demanding that the prosecutors meet.”

The Prosecuting Organizing Table was formed in 2020 in response to St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell and former St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Garner failing to meet the progressive promises they made on the campaign trail. Both elections made history following the uprising in Ferguson in 2014.

Gardner became the first Black prosecutor in St. Louis in 2016. Bell defeated Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch in the 2018 Democratic primary, then became the first Black person to hold that position. Despite that progress, Yang said there has been a continuation of the status quo.

“These candidates who ran on more progressive campaigns said that they would use their office for good,” Yang said. “They would address some of the things causing racial bias and convictions and sentencing. Unfortunately, the outcomes were not what the racial justice organizations were hoping for.”

The coalition includes Action St. Louis, ArchCity Defenders, Freedom Community Center, Forward Through Ferguson, MacArthur Justice Center and Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty.

The group will analyze the prosecutors’ offices based on five metrics: transparency, charging decisions, pretrial detention, conviction and sentencing, and commitment to community-based alternatives.

“We want to educate and empower the public to know what the prosecutor’s role really is and what options they have when it comes to charging decisions or their strategies when it comes to handling a case,” Yang said. “We also want to equip the public with the data they need to understand whether or not they actually support a prosecutor.”

The coalition reached out to both Bell and St. Louis Circuit Attorney Gabe Gore to release data on metrics including pretrial detention, charging decisions, and convicting and sentencing. Both have yet to do so, despite Bell saying he would, said Michelle Smith, co-director of Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty.

“It is very telling when a prosecutor did promise to be transparent, to be community focused and to make sure that the community’s interests be at the forefront of him running the office,” Smith said. “That’s not being done. The thing is we don’t know. If you don’t give us the data, we actually don’t know. We’ve also been told that the data is not being kept.”

Smith acknowledges that Bell held up campaign promises such as not seeking the death penalty, which she’s pleased with. But he’s not lived up to others.

“Prosecutor Bell has not been much different than his predecessor Bob McCulloch,” Smith said. “The [lack of] transparency in the office. Those charging decisions and things that we need to see where we could gauge progress, we really haven’t seen. There’s still a lot of people in St. Louis County jail. There’s still a lot of people getting charged with certain crimes that we feel like they shouldn’t be.”

In recent years, St. Louis has been under the microscope for a growing number of deaths at the St. Louis City Justice Center, shake-ups to the St. Louis Detention Facilities Oversight Board, uprisings from detainees for jail conditions and mistreatment.

The coalition plans to release two more reports this year.

Mike Milton, founder and executive director of the Freedom Community Center in St. Louis, joined St. Louis on the Air to discuss the Prosecuting Organizing Table and its report. Listen to the conversation on Apple Podcast, Spotify or Google Podcast, or by clicking the play button below.

Prosecutors wield vast power in St. Louis. A coalition is putting them under scrutiny

Marissanne is the afternoon newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.