Less than a week after a controversial pro-gun bill died at the Missouri State Capitol -- one that local officials said would have obstructed law enforcement -- the judges of St. Louis' Circuit Court are voting today on a proposal that could help reduce gun violence in the city. That is according to the proponents of the so-called "Armed Offender Docket," who, amid the heated gun control debates across the state and country, have been pushing for a court system reform that has received bipartisan support.
"This is a way to hold people who commit gun crimes responsible," says Maggie Crane, spokeswoman for Mayor Francis Slay, who has been promoting the gun docket concept for months.
The idea is rather simple: Establish a special division of the state circuit court in St. Louis that would exclusively focus on gun crimes.
The thinking is that dedicated judges would oversee the prosecution of those committing the most common firearm offenses in city -- the ones that continue to contribute to violence in St. Louis and our reputation as one of the most dangerous cities. This special court, supporters say, could do a better job of getting to the root causes of gun violence and provide more appropriate sentencing.
"These are the gun crimes, in our judgment, where the court could have the most profound impact in preventing future gun violence," Slay wrote in a Facebook post in July, urging city residents to weigh in on the debate in advance of the judges' vote.
Today at the court's monthly meeting, which starts at 10 a.m. in the Civil Courts Building in St. Louis, judges will formally discuss the gun docket proposal.
If the judges vote to approve and implement the reform, this specialized trial division would work 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," as the mayor first described it.
The division would handle two classes of firearm cases:
(1) UUW- Unlawful Use of a Weapon (in which the alleged offender is charged with illegally carrying or firing a gun) and (2) Robbery 1st Degree (in which the alleged offender is charged with using a gun in a robbery).
Dedicated judges would know a lot more about the defendants who appear before the court and would better understand who should remain behind bars and who deserves a second chance, supporters argue. The mayor has called it a "violence reduction" court, in which judges would "have the full array of tools to do justice and help prevent further violence."
While it mirrors the setup of juvenile court -- in which a dedicated judge offers consistent and informed juvenile justice -- the idea of an gun docket is arguably unprecedented. The proposal is also unique in Missouri in that it has largely avoided the heated gun control debates and was in fact first proposed at the state legislature by a Republican lawmaker who worked with the Democratic mayor's office on the concept.
"What we know for sure is that something is not working," Crane tells us. "Too many criminals are getting out on the street and reoffending. Why not try this?"
"It would be the right thing to do for the citizens of this city," she continues, "to give them another tool, another resource to cut down on gun crimes. It's the responsible thing to do."
A key component of the proposal is a built-in plan to track results of this effort and collect data.
"All of this would be tested and evaluated to find out what works," Crane says, noting that University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist Richard Rosenfeld would study the results, examining charges, bonds, parole, probation, reentry services and more.
The gun docket would especially help hold accountable the criminals who commit crimes with firearms, but may not, for whatever reason, fatally wound their victims.
Crane cites the example of Ronnell Hood, a suspect who was sentenced in January for pointing an assault rifle at two cops, which earned him charges of armed criminal action and assault on law enforcement officials. He got four years behind bars and five years probation. Police Chief Sam Dotson, a supporter of the gun docket and of stricter gun control, argued at the time that the sentence was way too soft.
"When you point an AK-47 at a police officer and fire that weapon," Crane says, "your intent is to severely hurt or kill them."
Of the Hood sentence, she says, "This is a type of case that needs to be taken very seriously. He was given what would amount to a slap on the wrist."
Some judges have expressed concerns about the gun docket proposal, largely about the logistics of implementation and resources needed to establish these changes, but Slay and Dotson recently met with judges to continue to work through the proposal. You can listen to the two discussing the proposal on KMOX here.