Calls for special St. Louis gun court increase

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Two days after city judges rejected a proposal to create a special gun court in St. Louis, Missouri’s attorney general and the city’s police chief reiterated their support for the new approach at an urban crime summit at St. Louis University.

A formal discussion of the proposed “armed offender docket” isn’t scheduled until Thursday, when Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, Circuit Judge John Garvey and a University of Missouri-St. Louis criminology professor will debate the measure.

But the specter of Monday’s decision was apparent at the St. Louis University law school event, from Attorney General Chris Koster’s introductory remarks to more blunt criticism by city Police Chief Sam Dotson, who called the judges’ embrace of a compromise plan to expedite trial dates for those accused of violent crimes mere “window dressing” that won’t adequately address rampant gun violence.

“We have a proliferation of illegal guns in the city of St. Louis,” Dotson said in an Associated Press interview. “Over 3,000 crimes year-to-date that have been committed with guns in the city. The judiciary did a disservice to the people of the city of St. Louis by not taking on this challenge.

“The police department does a great job of arresting people. But what we’re seeing is the outcomes they receive in the court process in many cases don’t fit the crime and leave the community vulnerable.”

A proposal by Garvey called for a court docket overseen by two judges who would rely on speedier trials and higher cash-only bonds in cases of armed robbery and unlawful use of weapons, with gun-related homicides and assaults remaining on the broader docket. The judges rejected that plan by a vote of 16-11.

“Swift and expedient judgments along with high bonds could have an impact,” Dotson said. “The model we have now isn’t working as well as it could be. ... (Criminals) are not fearful of a trial that could happen two or three years later.”

After the vote, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said he planned to ask state lawmakers to require the specialized court when they next meet for the 2014 session starting in January. Dotson offered similar sentiments Wednesday, as did Koster.

Judicial systems are belatedly realizing that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work, Koster said, responding with specialized courts that handle cases involving the homeless, military veterans, defendants with mental health problems and those struggling with substance abuse. A similar effort focusing on weapons is needed, he said, but will require a political shift as well as a new way of thinking that emphasizes strict punishment early on rather than giving offenders second and third chances.

“Our natural instinct in law enforcement is to increase punishment as the numbers of criminal convictions occur in a defendant’s life. So the older you get, and the more crimes you commit, the longer your punishment,” he said.

“But when it comes to guns, and gangs, that whole model may need to be readjusted, if not turned on its head. The problem exists in a narrow segment of the population — largely males between the ages of 17 and 28 — and not males between the ages of 40 and 50.”

A special gun court would also benefit Kansas City, Koster said, and will likely be among the five or 10 recommendations he plans to make in a written report from the crime summit that he expects to release to lawmakers, law enforcement and the public in December.

Kansas City Mayor Sly James, who attended the St. Louis session, said he too supports a special gun court in his city.

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