Will justice ever come to Ferguson, Missouri?
That’s what activists are hoping this August 7. Almost four years to the day after Michael Brown was murdered, voters in and around this small Missouri city will head to the polls to decide who will be their next top prosecutor.
For decades, the St. Louis County prosecutor race barely registered on the political radar. Like most district-attorney races around the country, it tended to come and go like a passing breeze—uneventful, uninspired, with the incumbent slipping back into office, unchallenged.
But in the wake of Brown’s murder and the protest movement it helped spawn, this year’s race is a showdown between two candidates claiming competing visions of criminal justice.
On the one side is Robert McCulloch, the 67-year-old incumbent who has led the St. Louis County DA’s office since 1991. A law-and-order prosecutor with close ties to the police—his father was an officer who was shot and killed on the job—he’s alienated entire segments of his constituency, along with criminal-justice reformers from around the country.
But what has most enraged McCulloch’s critics was his failure to win in an indictment against Darren Wilson, the police officer who murdered Brown—a failure that seemed so egregiously intentional that The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank (among others) called it a “joke.”
Challenging McCulloch is Wesley Bell, a 43-year-old Ferguson resident who works as a prosecutor in the Consolidated Municipal Courts and also serves as a Ferguson City Council member. A former public defender, Bell has cast himself as a reform candidate, the progressive alternative to a deeply troubled status quo. His platform includes ending cash bail for nonviolent offenses, the death penalty, and mass incarceration and has earned him the support of influential groups like Color of Change, Democracy for America, and Shaun King’s Real Justice PAC. As King explained in an official endorsement statement. “In Ferguson, Wesley Bell emerged as a strong leader in the fight to transform our justice system.… As the St. Louis County Prosecutor, we can count on Wesley to expand this kind of critical reform work county-wide.”
Yet Bell’s path to the DA’s office has been rocky. His opponent has raised more money, and Bell himself has yet to win over all progressives. For one thing, as a municipal court judge, Bell had to assign excessive fines and fees that had a particularly negative impact on people of color (he did not craft this policy). He’s also been criticized for his lack of experience.
I spoke with Bell over the phone to ask him about his plans and how his campaign fits into the nationwide trend of progressive prosecutors running for office. The election is the Democratic primary, but since St. Louis County is a Democratic county, the primary will almost certainly determine the election.
Jessica Pishko: Tell me about your background.
Wesley Bell: I started my career as a public defender, from 2001 to 2003. In 2003, I opened my own practice, primarily criminal and some civil. I head the Criminal Justice and Legal Studies Department at St. Louis Community College, and I’m currently a prosecutor in the consolidated court.
JP: You were a municipal court judge. Do you have anything to say about people who might comment on the fact that you came from a court system known for excessive fines and fees?
WB: What I am responsible for is helping to reform those courts. I was the first court after 2014 to essentially do a universal warrant recall. I sent an order giving everyone a new court date. And, a few months later, I dismissed every single case that was over three to five years or older that didn’t involve violence or a victim. I was also appointed by the Missouri Supreme Court to serve on their criminal-justice-reform task force as well as their committee reforming practice and procedures in the municipal court.
Just to keep things in perspective, when August 2014 happened, I’d only been in the municipal courts for a year and a half. And I’ll add, too, that having practiced—like a lot of people, not just attorneys—we knew there were things the court was doing wrong. I don’t think many people knew until the DOJ report came out, the scope, how much it permeated St. Louis County and all of the state for that matter, how pervasive that was. Once several people—not just me—realized the scope of it, a lot got to work on reform.
Sometimes, it’s the lazy narrative to say all police are bad or all stockbrokers are bad or all people working in municipal courts were bad. And that’s not true. You have to look at what people were doing. There were some people who were perpetuating those issues, but there were some people who were working to reform the courts, and I am happy to have been in that later category.
JP: Why are you running for county prosecutor now?
WB: I served on the Ferguson City Council. I was part of the negotiating team that helped create and write the consent degree, working with President Obama’s Department of Justice. That was very eye-opening for me, being locking in a room for sometimes 10-plus hours with some of the brightest legal minds in the country.… When we look at issues of criminal-justice reforms needed countywide, when we look at mass incarceration, many people are starting to realize the impact that the prosecutor’s office particularly has on our justice system.
When I was a younger attorney, like every young attorney, I wanted to be a judge because I wanted to make a difference. Once I was bestowed with that honor, if you will, it didn’t take me long to realize that the prosecutor’s office wields the biggest impact in that system. When something comes to the judge, the judge is confined by the law.… But the prosecutor has what’s called discretion, and we can say this is what we will charge, or not charge. Or do this drug-treatment program, and we won’t charge. So the prosecutor’s office has the biggest impact when we talk about reforming our justice system.
JP: How do you think police violence should be handled?
WB: First and foremost, I think that with any police-shooting cases, I think you have to appoint a special prosecutor. I know from working with law enforcement, I mean that’s the toughest job in the world. Some of my best friends are officers, and there’s just an inherent conflict of interest. If you were to say, hey, one of my good friends who happens to be a police officer used excessive force and shot someone, just naturally I would question it because this was my friend. And when you’re working in such close quarters as the prosecutor’s office and law enforcement, I am sure you can imagine, you have colleagues.
You get to know them. They are your friends. You spend a lot of time with those colleagues. That gives the appearances of bias. In any police-shooting case, a special prosecutor will be appointed, and I’ll take it a step further. For the sake of transparency, we will create what our policies are with respect to police shootings and make those public so everyone will know before something happens what our policies are and how we are going to proceed if, God forbid, something like that happens.
JP: In the last year or two, candidates running for prosecutor positions are calling for similar things like reduction in the use of cash bail, less jail for nonviolent offenders. Why do you think St. Louis County is ready for that change?
WB: Across the country, you’re seeing people awaken to the need for criminal-justice reform much more so than you’ve seen in the past. In St. Louis County, our homicide rates are up since 2012 over 112 percent. Sex assaults are up anywhere from 80 to 200 percent since 2012. Our violent crimes are up. So that antiquated focus on conviction rates that came out of the 1980s, it hasn’t worked.
JP: So it’s not only overly punitive; it’s also not working.
JP: Assuming you win, what does day one look like?
WB: I believe in transparency. Justice is about transparency. People need to know what they are voting for. On day one, we will expand drug programs and diversion programs [programs that send defendants to drug treatment or other classes in lieu of jail time] for nonviolent offenders. We know when people get tools in the toolbox they are less likely to offend again. It’s a win-win across the board. It brings down crime rates and helps people.
Also, ending cash bail for nonviolent offenders. Cash bail is overly burdensome on nonviolent offenders in the community while the murderer with means can get out. It’s an unfair system. It’s doesn’t work. It’s just ineffective.
When we stop focusing on nonviolent possession cases, it frees up resources and prosecutors that we can [instead] focus on violent and serious crimes.
I just want to make sure that this is clear. Once someone crosses that line to arming people and committing violent crimes, they have to be held accountable. That will be a priority. However, what we are trying to do is implement preventive measures with nonviolent offenders so they won’t progress to violent crimes. I don’t want people thinking that I’m not going to prosecute violent crimes. When you cross that line, you have to be held accountable.
JP: Do you have anything else to add?
WB: People need to get out and vote and get their voices heard. This election matters. We are losing industries. One of the things people factor in is how safe is that community. This is part of how we turn our region around, by being at the forefront of justice reform to make sure this is a safer community and we are helping the people who need help.