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St. Louis’ longest-serving circuit attorney, Jennifer Joyce, retires after 16 years

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce.

The city of St. Louis’ Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce first started in that office in 1994 as the assistant circuit attorney. In 2000, she was elected as the city’s circuit attorney. Joyce just left the office at the end of 2016 after 22 years of service.

By all counts, Joyce, 54,  is the longest-serving circuit attorney in the history of the city of St. Louis.

Joyce grew up in St. Louis, attending Bishop DuBourg High School and graduating from the Saint Louis University School of Law in 1987. Before joining the Circuit Attorney’s office, she worked for the private law firm Husch Blackwell.

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Joyce joined host Don Marsh to discuss her years in office and what’s next for her (hint: it includes an RV and traveling to follow the sun):

What would you like to see change systemically with the justice system?

Joyce:  “I would like to see sufficient resources be given to prosecutors’ offices and public defenders’ offices. The attorneys that handle those cases should be paid on par with those handling private sector practices. … We can have more career prosecutors if we invest in having those public servants be paid appropriately.

“As a whole, we need to be less about blaming other agencies and other parts of government for the problems that we see and the levels of crime and what’s happening in our city. I’d like to see us less interested in blaming and more in everybody thinking about what they can do that’s different. Not be afraid to try new things, to break new ground. I’m notorious in my office for changing things around.”

Do we arrest too many people for too long of sentences?

Joyce: “Not that I see, no. Back in the early days, I think we were knee-deep in the war on drugs. I was working for Dee Joyce Hayes. The mindset of the time was that if you were dealing or using drugs, you were a danger to our society and you should go away.

“I think there’s been a complete shift in thinking in almost every prosecutor’s office across the country. Prosecutors are looking for other ways to handle cases other than to send people to the penitentiary. Numerous diversion programs started in my office, some copied nationally.

“Get violent criminals off the street, definitely, but for  lesser crimes like drug possession or minor property crimes, we would serve ourselves by investigating what the root causes are, what makes people want to do that and start focusing our energy and resources on providing solutions for those causes.”

What is the relationship like between police and prosecutors?

“The idea that we’re rubber stamps for the police is ludicrous,” Joyce said, stating that her office only prosecuted half the arrests police make and that it was also her job to prosecute police when they commit crimes.

What impact did Ferguson have on you?

Joyce:If I had to point to one singular event that will always stand out in my mind: it will always be Ferguson. Even though it didn’t directly involve me, it involved Bob McCulloch, my colleague in the next jurisdiction over.

“When you pick a jury in the city of St. Louis, you get to hear a focus group talking about attitudes about police. For my whole career as a prosecutor, I heard people from the city of St. Louis talking about their concerns. When Ferguson erupted in St. Louis County, I was initially quite surprised it didn’t happen in the city of St. Louis because we have a lot of the same frustration in our citizenry.

“Ferguson was a turning point, it was a sea change for law enforcement across the country: prosecutors and police together. Some of the things it has changed: I think prosecutors now really have to focus on how to be as open as possible and as good of communicators as possible in decisions they make.”

Joyce cited Bob McCulloch and his decision not to indict Darren Wilson, saying that he had a legal basis for that decision.

“Bob tried to explain that but by the time he was talking to people about it, people had made up their minds,” Joyce said. “What I urge prosecutors across the country to do: we need to find a time when there’s not a crisis going on and bring them in and talk to them about the process and what’s in our heart and why we do why we do.”

Joyce said she would have communicated differently than McCulloch.

She also reflected on the “regrettable” protest that took place in front of her home, which disquieted her, but had no impact on her decision to retire, which she had made year earlier.

Would you ever consider a run for mayor?

Joyce: “The hard part about running for mayor is that if you are elected you have to be mayor. That is a really, really difficult job in this city. This city has really intractable jobs. I’m interested in taking a break from that right now. That’s not something I’ve ever entertained.”  

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 Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.