Missouri New bail program earns kudos in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- St. Louis officials believe they've found a relatively simple way to reduce killings -- setting bail levels so high for gun crimes that defendants spend lengthy time behind bars even before they are convicted.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (http://bit.ly/ABKq1c ) reports that about eight months ago, the St. Louis Circuit Court began taking the hardline approach to gun crimes. Police Chief Dan Isom credits the practice with helping to reduce the city's homicides by 20 percent to 114, a level not seen since 2004.

The program is so promising that researchers from the University of Chicago are studying the effort and believe it could revolutionize crime prevention. Judge John Garvey, who introduced the program in May, is encouraged but said it's too soon to gauge the real value of the program.

"We absolutely need a bigger snapshot; that's why the University of Chicago is here," Garvey said. "I'm not convinced that gun bonds are the difference ... but wouldn't it be amazing if it was this easy?"

Defense lawyers aren't as enthusiastic, saying bail is meant to ensure a person appears in court or is not a threat.

"It's being used by Judge Garvey as a deterrent, and that's not what bond is for," said Terence Niehoff, a defense attorney.

Another defense lawyer, Robert Taaffe, said jail time doesn't scare repeat or violent offenders arrested for gun crimes because they already know the risk.

"There's no empirical proof that this is stopping street violence," Taaffe said. "All it's doing is empowering the police to go harass more people."

But Jens Ludwig, director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, said imposing immediate jail time seems to deter impressionable youths from carrying guns.

"What St. Louis is doing is really cutting edge in terms of thinking about a problem we hear about from talking to cops everywhere," he noted.

Isom said it is difficult to pinpoint why homicides are down. "But if I had to put a finger on it ... the only thing that has changed is the court system started to put $30,000 bonds on people carrying illegal weapons."

By the spring of last year, St. Louis was on pace to match the 144 killings in 2010. In May, Garvey began issuing $30,000 cash-only bail -- about 10 times higher than what was customary. He had the support of Isom and Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce.

Garvey targeted those in the 17-25 age range, figuring they might think twice about carrying a gun after a taste of jail. He said keeping gun-toting criminals behind bars until trial reduces the threat to the community.

"I haven't heard a good reason yet as to why a 17-year-old is walking around with a semiautomatic pistol," Garvey said. "This provides an immediate, quick response to unacceptable behavior."

Both Niehoff and Taaffe said they have had several gun crime clients who were held in lieu of high bail plead guilty just to get through court and sentenced to probation.

Garvey estimates that there have been roughly 120 cases in which higher bail was set.

Ludwig believes the St. Louis program works because younger defendants, disproportionately involved in gun crimes, tend to focus on short-term, rather than long-term consequences.

"For people who are very present-oriented, they will think, 'If the cops catch me, I'm not sleeping in my bed tonight. I'm spending the next however many days, weeks, months behind bars immediately,'" Ludwig said. "That's a fundamentally different thing from worrying about what's going to happen a year from now."

Plans call for Ludwig's team to present findings of is study in the spring. If the study confirms a link between the high-bail policy and the drop in killings, the team will recommend that courts nationwide implement the policy.

Published: Mon, Jan 9, 2012