Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Does St. Louis need an Armed Offender Docket?

St. Louis, like many cities around the country, is experiencing an increase in crime and acts of violence, especially gun violence. The number of guns that are used in crimes and the number of guns that are stolen is up.

When we look for ways to combat these increases, the suggestion of an Armed Offender Docket, a dedicated path through the City’s Circuit Court system to specific courtrooms, continually comes up. It’s been suggested by former Police Chief Dan Isom, by Mayor Francis Slay, by Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce and by professors from the University of Missouri - St. Louis as a way to better monitor outcomes for individuals arrested for “lesser” charges like Unlawful Use of a Weapon.

Police officers know far too well from experience that these gun crimes are sometimes precursors to more serious crimes. An Armed Offender Docket would allow closer monitoring of outcomes, more accountability, and ultimately, safer neighborhoods.

The fact is that the administration of justice has consequences, some of which are avoidable. Too often, the decisions made by some judges, not all but some, impact public safety in such a terrible way.

Almost every day, reports come across my desk about people who have been arrested while serving probation. I once thought being under the microscope of probation would encourage good behavior. Unfortunately, that is not always, or even often, the case.

This week, Rashad Edwards’ case made that point forcefully.

As a 17-year old, Edwards was arrested for Unlawful Use of a Weapon. His case slowly moved through the Circuit Court system and in April 2012 (over a year-and-a-half after his arrest) and just shy of his 19th birthday, he was sentenced to two years of probation along with guidance from the court to get a GED and continue to work, perhaps part-time due to school.

In February 2014, nearly two years after being sentenced, his probation was extended until April 2017, until almost his 24th birthday. The comments say, “… is hereby extended for a period of 3 years or until 4/11/2017 the extension would allowed (sic) Edwards to successfully complete the conditions of his supervision. So ordered: Judge Margaret Neill.”

Here is the unfortunate reality: Rashad Edwards is not going to get a GED, work or successfully complete his seven years of probation. On July 2, 2015, he was charged with Murder 1st Degree, the most serious crime.

What started in 2010 as a 17-year old arrested for UUW ended in 2015 with an individual almost 22-years old charged with Murder. It ended with an individual who’d been in the criminal justice system on probation since 2012 being charged with murder. It ended with a family losing a loved one to a crime committed by a person who had never faced life-changing consequences.

I am a pragmatist. I know that some judges have difficulty sending young offenders to prison. I don’t envy their positions, but I also know that some judges live in anonymity behind the bench and never see the true outcomes of their decisions. The reality is that judges are as responsible for public safety as the police officers who ride in our neighborhoods.

While no system is perfect, and while there are outstanding judges just like there are outstanding police officers, there is a fix for this one. A man might still be alive if Rashad Edwards hadn’t drawn a judge who put him on probation.

I can’t think of a more compelling case to have an Armed Offender Docket in the City of St. Louis.

(Information about his case can be found at www.courts.mo.gov)