Trying to Foolishly Prosecute Our Way Out of a Public Health Crisis

In the midst of St. Louis County, MO’s opioid epidemic, we find ourselves in a criminal justice crisis. Drug addiction is a disease, not a crime. Prosecutors must stop packing our jails and prisons with those who need treatment, not punishment.

The effect of this overcriminalization is undeniable: Nine out of every 10 people in Missouri’s correction centers need addiction treatment. In fact, 35 percent of the new admissions to state prison in 2017 were explicitly sent to receive help with their addictions.

St. Louis County needs a prosecuting attorney committed to reducing incarceration and prioritizing alternatives that are more effective at preventing future crime and improving community health.

Since St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch started his pre-charge, alternative drug court program in 2014, only 99 people have been enrolled. Only 36 people have completed the program. That averages to nine people per year. With drug abuse rates so high in the county, why are we not using the alternative drug court system designed to address this very problem?

Instead, McCulloch’s office continues to push for imprisonment, contributing to Missouri’s skyrocketing incarceration rate — and doing nothing to stem the devastating opioid epidemic. Missouri ranks No. 8 in the nation when it comes to how many of its citizens are behind bars. Since 2010, Missouri’s female prison population has increased 33 percent and is the fastest growing in the nation.Much of that increase is attributable to drug-related prosecutions.

Prosecutors are the most influential actors in the criminal justice system. Prosecutors have the power to decide what kinds of charges they’ll pursue and how severe the punishment will be. A prosecutor’s decision can dramatically shape a person’s entire life.

We know the criminal justice system is not equipped to handle the social and health issues that land many people in prison and jail.

Opioid abuse is so rampant in St. Louis County, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger recently declared it a public health emergency. His $1.5 million plan has public health officials working with corrections officers, social workers and other specialists to combat the addiction crisis.

St. Louis County needs reform-minded prosecutors focused on keeping the public safe by addressing the root causes of crime, not on obtaining convictions and harsh prison sentences at any cost. On McCulloch’s watch, the opioid epidemic has worsened, with devastating consequences for families and communities.

In 2016, St. Louis County filed new 3,159 drug prosecutions, including citations, misdemeanors and felonies — an increase from years before. Despite this aggressive prosecution of drug-related crimes, including simple drug possession and possession of drug paraphernalia, St. Louis County still finds itself in the middle of a public health crisis.

Imprisonment is a harsh and costly response to addiction. It often forces people into debt as they work to secure bail money to free their loved ones facing charges. Incarceration should be the last option, not the first.

St. Louis County should commit to sending the national average of 9 percent of all felony cases to an alternative drug court. Voters in St. Louis County must demand that their prosecuting attorney shapes a smart and fair justice system.

Prosecutor Robert  McCulloch/photo by Ryan Michaelesko

Prosecutor Robert McCulloch/photo by Ryan Michaelesko

With a different approach, St. Louis County has an opportunity to become an innovator. Across the country, a growing number of forward-thinking prosecutors are leading the way in changing the culture of the criminal justice system and getting results. They have worked to become more transparent with and responsive to the communities they serve.

Prosecutors have power. We the people must make sure they use it for the health of the community.

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford

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