By Wesley Bell
我們都知道改變是可怕的 – 就算我們知道需要改變，而且正在改變中。在我擔任聖路易郡檢察長即將滿3年的現在，我看到了這個變化，希望能和大家談談我在社區中所聽到的某些疑慮和擔憂。
正如我在競選時所提出的承諾，我就任後啟動了檢察官主導的「疏導專案」(Prosecutor-Led Diversion program)，這個疏導專案對像是較低等級的非暴力犯罪案，針對那些在使用毒品、酒精、藥物、吸入劑等和心理健康問題上掙扎的人提供治療方案，而不是予以刑事起訴。然而隨著這個專案的實施，我聽到了有這樣的說法 – 那就是如果不起訴一些較低等級的非暴力犯罪會導致更嚴重的犯罪。但是，根據我所聘請的檢察長辦公室第一位數據分析師的數據表明，情況恰恰相反。
根據美國大部分城市的聯邦調查局初步數據，在全國範圍內，暴力犯罪類去年增加了3%，尤其是兇殺案有所增加，即使其他犯罪有所減少。兇殺案的增加似乎主要是由槍枝暴力增加所致，非營利槍枝暴力檔案(Gun Violence Archive)之報告指出，與前一年相比，2020年全國範圍內槍枝殺人案增加了近4,000起。
本文作者 Wesley Bell 是聖路易郡檢察長，這是他當選聖路易郡檢察長後致力司法起訴改革兩篇文章中的第一篇。第二篇是 “司法起訴改革中保護社會大眾 (Protecting the public while reforming prosecution)“。英文原文請見聖路易時報網站。
Fear and facts about crime and prosecution
By Wesley Bell
Change, as we know, is scary – even when it’s change that we know we need and initiated ourselves. As I approach the end of my third year leading the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney’s office, I see this dynamic in action and wish to speak to some fears I have heard in the community.
As promised in my campaign for this office, I started a Prosecutor-Led Diversion program. This program reviews low-level, non-violent offenders, looking for those who are struggling with substance use or mental health issues. The appropriate candidates are offered a program of treatment rather than criminal prosecution. As this change has gone into effect, however, I have heard the claim that not prosecuting some low-level, non-violent crimes is leading to more serious crime. Our data – and I hired this office’s first data analyst – show that just the opposite is true.
Our diversion programs for non-violent offenders have accepted close to 1,200 participants to date, and the re-offense rate for our diversion participants was less than 8% as of August 2021. Compare that to statewide averages for recidivism that hover around 45% and go as high as 80% around the country, and it’s clear that these new alternatives to traditional prosecution are working and protecting the public right now – and will have more benefits in the long run as thousands of people who would have been mired in the criminal justice system are instead leading peaceful and productive lives.
I also have heard some fears in the community based on a misunderstanding of who does and does not qualify for our diversion programs. Any crime involving a victim or a firearm disqualifies the defendant from diversion. For example, we do not consider burglary or car theft to be low-level offenses. Accused burglars and car thieves do not qualify for diversion. In fact, we have directed more attention at prosecuting these crimes by creating a task force with several local police departments to focus on car break-ins.
The fears I want to address are not only based in misperceptions of our office but also misperceptions of crime itself. Without question, similar to trends across the country, the St. Louis region has seen an increase in certain violent crimes, and we all should be concerned and try to find our roles in offering solutions. But crime trends are more complex than the perception that we are engulfed in a crime wave.
In 2020, according to FBI data, St. Louis County saw an increase in homicide, aggravated assault, and vehicle theft. However, St. Louis County saw a decrease in rape, robbery, burglary, and general theft last year.
Nationally, the broader category of violent crime increased about 3% last year, according to preliminary FBI data from a large subset of American cities. It’s homicide in particular that has increased, even as other crimes fell. The homicide increase appears to be primarily driven by rising gun violence, with the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive reporting nearly 4,000 additional gun killings nationwide in 2020 compared with the year before.
But what’s happening with homicides is not part of some broader crime wave. In fact, many crimes, from larcenies to robberies to rape, dropped during the pandemic, and continued to fall during the first few months of 2021. Crime, overall, is not surging.
If our public safety protocols for the pandemic are observed and we are able to return increasingly to more fully social lives, we have one good reason to hope for less crime. With COVID, many support, treatment, and prevention programs halted operation or worked in a limited capacity. People were stuck in unsafe situations, and economic pressure increased. This goes back to a primary motivation for our diversion programs. Many people commit petty crimes because they need help that they are not getting. More treatment should be reflected in less crime.
I want to close by discussing a category of crime that does not strike fear the way burglary and car theft do, but is a growing problem where we can all provide part of the solution. St. Louis County is seeing an increase in domestic violence. On average, we are receiving 105 referrals per month for domestic violence, up from 88 referrals per month in 2020 and 74 referrals per month in 2019. We believe that increasing isolation in the home due to the pandemic, along with its economic impacts, mostly accounts for this trend.
Everyone can play a role in addressing domestic violence. We need to look out for one another and check in with another. If you see signs of extreme jealousy, possessiveness, anger, verbal abuse, harassment or extremely controlling behavior in a relationship, then say something. These are all possible indicators of abuse. If you see physical evidence of domestic assault, document it and call the police or our office.
Our office has been very proactive in holding abusers accountable and, just as importantly, in working with domestic violence advocates to connect victims of abuse to the resources and help they need. We must let victims know that they are not alone.
I thank St. Louis County voters for trusting me to bring needed change, and I wanted to address some of the fears that come with change. I hope some facts have brought some clarity – and I ask for your continued trust and support as we continue to evolve the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney’s office in ways that protect the public by working with law enforcement and reaching out to our community stakeholders (including our friends in the AAPI community). Let’s all do everything we can to make this region a safer place.
Wesley Bell is the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney.