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Changing how crimes are prosecuted in St. Louis County will cost money, but council isn't rushing

Changing how crimes are prosecuted in St. Louis County will cost money, but council isn't rushing

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CLAYTON • Wesley Bell wants to change how criminal cases are prosecuted in St. Louis County, but he says it will cost more.

The prosecuting attorney and his advisers have appeared before the County Council twice this year to ask for $1.5 million for additional programs and staff. The extra money would allow Bell to spend $13.4 million this year. That’s 13 percent more than last year and 43 percent more than two years ago under Bell’s predecessor, Robert P. McCulloch.

Fresh off a budget battle with County Executive Steve Stenger, the council has been in no hurry to honor the request. Even Bell’s most avid supporter on the council, Hazel Erby, D-1st District, who was sworn in with Bell on Jan. 1, says she doesn’t know if the county can afford it.

Council members on Tuesday tabled a bill that would give 2.8 percent raises to all county employees and said they had learned just this week that money to be carried over from last year missed projections by $9 million.

“Money is tight,” said Lisa Clancy, D-5th District. “But what he is asking for is very different than what McCulloch had a vision for … and when someone comes with best practices and data and evidence, I want to make sure we are rewarding that with resources.”

Despite requesting more money, Bell’s changes have been aimed at reducing people and paper flowing through the county courthouse and jail.

He has decriminalized marijuana possession and child support cases, sought to release more defendants without bail and send more defendants to medical or mental health treatment before they are charged.

The county has until now had a limited diversion program run by the courts — after charges are issued.

Tim Fitch, R-3rd District, said it seemed to him that Bell’s changes would result in less work for his existing staff, and questioned the need for more support. With all the cases Bell will not be prosecuting, Fitch said, it seemed there would be better capacity to handle cases.

Bell has told council members that his reforms will save the county millions of dollars — by not housing inmates in the jail.

Fitch, the former county police chief, said he was skeptical when a public official says “give me more money and I can save you more money than you’re giving me.”

DIVERTING DRUG CASES

Data collected by the state show St. Louis County has lagged behind peers in diverting drug defendants for treatment. For example, Jackson County sent more than 11 percent of its felony cases to an “alternative court” last year, and the city of St. Louis sent 7 percent. St. Louis County sent less than 1 percent of its felony cases to alternative courts.

Bell has told the council that his office has an informal agreement with Affinia Healthcare, a St. Louis-based nonprofit organization formerly known as Grace Hill Health Centers, which provides primary and preventive health care at several locations.

Bell said in an interview this week that his office has already started sending some opiate-dependent defendants to get medical treatment at Affinia. He would not discuss specific cases but said none of the cases involved violence. Affinia has agreed to treat 200 St. Louis County defendants a year. The organization uses Suboxone to treat opioid addicts in a 60- to 90-day program.

“When someone is arrested, that can have a negative stigma toward a future employment,” Bell said. “So, for your low-level offenders who just need treatment … not only will they not get a conviction, we won’t even formally file charges. The stick is if they don’t go through with the programs and the treatment that they need, they can, and potentially would still be, charged.”

Discussion about the Affinia partnership started even before Bell upset McCulloch in the August Democratic primary. Bell said he began talking with groups that could provide drug treatment, and connected with Kendra Holmes, chief operating officer for Affinia. The two have appeared together several times at news conferences and meetings.

It was not clear whether those services should be subject to procurement rules. Bell said he didn’t think so because Affinia’s services are federally funded and there is no formal contract.

“St. Louis County taxpayers aren’t paying a dime with respect to this plan,” he said.

But he does want taxpayers to help him hire 21 more employees, including more prosecutors and a staff to run his diversion program.

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