St. Louis Gun Violence: Judge Philip Heagney's Concerns with Armed Offender Docket Idea



Last week, St. Louis mayor Francis Slay once again promoted the "extraordinary opportunity to reduce gun violence" in the city that he and his staff have been working on for more than a year.

The idea is to create an "armed offender docket" in the St. Louis City Circuit Court, through which dedicated judges would oversee the prosecution of gun crimes from arraignment to sentencing and beyond. Slay, who has the backing of the St. Louis Circuit Attorney's Office and the Metropolitan Police Department, is now trying to drum up support from the officials who have the authority to make this a reality: the judges.

On September 16, St. Louis Circuit Court judges will decide whether to adopt and implement this armed offender docket idea, and Philip Heagney, the presiding judge, has now written a formal letter to the mayor explaining his lingering concerns.

See also: - Gun Docket: Can the Courts Do a Better Job of Prosecuting Weapons Offenses? - 6-Year-Old Boy Accidentally Shoots Leonard Smith, 11, in Belleville - Mayor Francis Slay Promotes "Extraordinary Opportunity to Reduce Gun Violence"

Heagney's commentary, released on Monday and on view below, is a response to a letter Slay penned earlier this month, asking the judge to offer details on specific problems he sees with the proposed gun docket reform.

Supporters of the measure -- a form of which was introduced by state lawmakers this past legislative session in Missouri (but did not pass) -- argue that the city can reduce gun violence through a more calculated approach in the courtroom.

A docket devoted to this class of crimes, the mayor's office says, would allow court officials to track trends, better tackle the problem of illegal guns and provide appropriate sentencing that would help address the problem of repeat offenders.

Heagney, however, still has his doubts, largely regarding the court's limited resources.

He says, "In order for a specialized armed offenders docket to have any effect over and above the benefits that come from the Court's existing felony criminal docket operation, the armed offender docket will have to move more quickly and require greater adherence to a strict schedule that has been possible with the regular docket."

Slay's office meanwhile is still optimistic that these problems can be resolved.

Here are select excerpts of the problems regarding the day-to-day operations that must be resolved, according to Heagney:

- "There will be an increase in the transportation of confined defendants to and from the courthouse for repeated appearances..."

- "The resources for pretrial release will have to be improved. At present, two private companies...provide pretrial supervision for defendants who can afford to make bond and can afford to pay for private supervision services. The armed offender docket will require supervision for all defendants on bond and will require greater supervision for these defendants."

- "Both assistant circuit attorneys and defense attorneys will have to be available in the armed offender docket courtrooms more often and more regularly than is the case with Division 16's felony trial docket..."

- Required "Sentencing Assessment Reports" outlined in the proposal will "increase the workload for the Probation Office that provides pre-sentencing reports to the Court."

- "The need for more intensive probation review will create availability and scheduling problems."

- If an armed offender docket judge is regularly handling "robbery 1st degree trials, that judge will not be able to handle the variety of other work that she/he will need to do to keep the armed offender docket running."

Continue for response from the mayor's office, the full document and Slay's original letter.

Mayor Francis Slay with Eddie Roth. - COURTESY OF MAGGIE CRANE
  • Courtesy of Maggie Crane
  • Mayor Francis Slay with Eddie Roth.

The mayor's office says it remains confident.

Eddie Roth, Slay's director of operations, tells Daily RFT in an e-mail, "I don't see anything in Judge Heagey's list that represents a significant obstacle to the prompt and successful implementation of the gun docket proposal. We will be able to satisfy all reasonable concerns -- and look forward to the public give-and-take."

Here's the full letter, followed by Slay's original letter to the judge.

2013 - 07 -Judge Heagney Letter

July 10, 2013

Hon. Philip D. Heagney Twenty-Second Judicial Circuit of Missouri Civil Courts Building 10 North Tucker Boulevard St. Louis, Missouri 63101

Re: Armed Offender Docket - Circuit Court City of St. Louis

Dear Judge Heagney:

We are looking forward to the Court's consideration of the proposed creation of an Armed Offender Docket. We understand the proposal will appear on the agenda of the Court's September en banc meeting.

The proposal has been more than a year in the making. It improves on efforts begun in other state court systems. It is a product of discussions that began as part of the weekly meetings organized by Judge Jack Garvey, when he served as Criminal Assignment Judge, along with Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce and Chief of Police Daniel Isom.

These discussions, of course, continued when you became Criminal Assignment Judge and grew to include Prof. Richard Rosenfeld of UMSL's Department of Criminology, as well as our Director of Public Safety, the Regional Administrator of Missouri 's Division of Probation and Parole, and senior investigators at the Regional Justice Information Services (REJIS. Our counterparts in Jackson County and Kansas City also are working to develop an Armed Offender Docket and we are collaborating with them.

We are pursuing this with such vigor because we believe it will prevent violence and save lives. We believe it will make our neighborhoods safer. We believe it will improve the delivery and quality of justice and strengthen the independence of our judiciary.

We see creation of a specialized Armed Offender Docket - as we put it in the jointly authored essay that appeared in the February 7 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch - as a way to "deliver a comprehensive and evidence-based judicial response to the chronic and unacceptably high incidence of gun offenses in the city of St. Louis."

You and some of your colleagues have identified potential "workability problems" with the Armed Offender Docket concept. You prepared and circulated a memo dated January 17, 2013, for example, in which you identified potential barriers to a specialized docket's effective operations.

Specifically, you observed:

• "I believe that our court does not, at this time, have enough court resources to make a firearms docket work effectively and efficiently. We have too many pending felony cases, and we have too few lawyers, judges and other administrative people. 1 think that there is a good chance that, if we try to run the firearms docket now, we will cause a lot of confusion for the docket controllers, the lawyers, the defendants and the judges. 1 think that we are spread too thin for the volume of felony cases currently pending. My fear is that adding two specialized divisions that operate at the same time and with the same people as Division 16's general felony docket will create conflicts and frustration for all involved."

• "Initially, 1 was not much concerned about the 'political' issue related the operation of the firearms docket. However, Judge Hettenbach and Judge Mason have raised questions about what will happen at the political level when either or both of the two firearms docket judges make decisions which vary substantially from recommendations from the assistant circuit attorneys or from the defense attorneys. The more 1 have thought about this problem, the more concern 1 have that it could cause conflicts that undermine the work of the two firearms docket divisions and the goals of the whole program."

We wish to respond and propose specific solutions to these and other concerns you may have. But we want to make sure we understand the full scope and nature of your concerns. Since you and your committee have been considering the Armed Offender Docket proposal for many months, we hope you could provide us with prompt and specific advice on your latest and best thinking on potential barriers to the docket's effective operation.

What specifically is it about pending felony caseloads that makes you think the special docket would be problematic? What staffing shortfalls worry you? What added personnel do you believe would alleviate these concerns - and please be as specific as you can as to particular positions?

In practical terms, what "confusion," "conflicts" and "fear" do you envision the docket creating? What added resources do you believe could minimize or eliminate confusion, conflict and/or fear?

What do you and Judge Hettenbach and Judge Mason fear "will happen at the political level when either or both of the two firearms docket judges make decisions which vary substantially from recommendations from the assistant circuit attorneys or from the defense attorneys"?

Are the courts, in your judgment, now being unfairly subjected to this kind of "political" treatment? If so, how many such occasions in recent years come to mind? What is it about a specialized docket that makes your concerns more acute?

Have additional "workability" concerns arisen since you authored your January memo?

We are confident that, working together, we quickly can resolve any potential "workability" problems - and make sure the court has the resources it needs. Many people with long experience in the operation of the court's criminal docket, including members of your court, share our optimism - and believe the Armed Offender Docket can be implemented in ways that fully respect individualized justice and promote public confidence in our courts.

I would be grateful if you would provide me with a written summary of all significant "workability" concerns. Please be as specific as you can. If we could receive your update by August 7th - four weeks from today - we could be sure of our ability to complete work and provide the court with a full analysis amply in advance of the September en banc meeting.

Thank you for your courtesy, consideration, and assistance.

Francis G. Slay Mayor

Copy: Jennifer M. Joyce, Esq, Col. Sam Dotson, Nancy McCarthy, Prof. Richard Rosenfeld, Bill Thompson, Esq, Eddie Roth, Charlene Deeken, Dr. Bill Powell, Jean Peters Baker, Esq

Send feedback and tips to the author. Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin.

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