In an effort to battle an ever-growing homicide rate, authorities in St. Louis have turned to federal officials for help in prosecuting some cases.
Typically, only about two percent of violent crime cases wind up being prosecuted by the feds, and most of them are cases where a federal official is involved. The remaining 98 percent are usually prosecuted at the state level, but St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson and Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce are aiming to change that, partly because they expect the change to yield better results.
Dotson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he feels the federal court system is tougher on criminals and normally defense attorneys won’t readily step up to a federal case. As a result, Dotson said local authorities are searching for a means to make a case federal from the beginning of the investigation.
“If I have a choice, and there is a nexis to a federal crime, I’ll take it to federal courts because I have better outcomes in federal courts,” Dotson said. “There is more consistency in sentencing from the federal courts, and defendants must serve 85 percent of their sentence. I’m dealing with a state court where a guy can shoot at a cop and get (probation).”
Dotson didn’t disclose the details that would categorize an incident as a federal case, but did say the cases often involved multiple victims.
Part of the problem with attempting to prosecute gun cases at the state level has been an inadvertent result of the pro-gun Amendment 5 passed last year. The amendment allows felons to possess a firearm, but also makes it harder to get a conviction when needed. So far, U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan has taken about 70 such cases that otherwise would have been dead in the water.
“The feds have really saved the day and taken all of these Amendment 5 cases,” Joyce said.
And Callahan said it was the city’s crime rate coupled with the new legislation that prompted him to get involved.
“Our role is to not get in the way, but help where we can,” Callahan said. “And right now, because of the increasing gun violence coupled with crime, in part created by a state legislature that has a complete disconnect with urban violence, there is a bigger role for us to play right now and we’re there to play it.”
The homicide rate for the city so far this year is just under 90, an increase of nearly 50 percent since last year, and about a 30 percent jump from the year before. St. Louis authorities have suspects in about 30 of those cases, 27 of which have been brought to Joyce for review. So far, only 18 of them have resulted in charges.
“People in this city are tired of dead bodies and tired of gun violence,” Joyce said.
And while Callahan’s focus remains on the gun cases that otherwise couldn’t be prosecuted by the state, he said he believes the “first line of defense” against crime still falls with local law enforcement and state prosecutors. However, he also admitted the feds have greater resources for dealing with drug murders and large numbers of homicides.
Nonetheless, Joyce said it takes a corroboration of different agencies to see real results. She said in 2000, after she first took office, the city’s homicide rate had dropped into the 1970s when the Circuit Attorney’s Office, U.S. attorney and the local police department all worked hand in hand.
“Over time, that relationship eroded,” she said. “And we are getting back to that.”