“Let’s set the record straight…” Wesley Bell St. Louis County Prosecutor
One lesson I learned from my time as a Councilman in Ferguson is “patience.” Our team created a working document to begin discussions “internally” with the Prosecutors in the office to be able to get their input. I am very proud of the reforms discussed in that Interim Policy.
The document was leaked & reported as if those policies were “finalized.” Some of the policies were also initially reported incorrectly. In this post, I will discuss criminal child support, in particular, because it has caused much confusion.
My guiding philosophy is that we cannot and will not prosecute poverty or operate the courts as debtors’ prisons. A child support order is a civil order issued by a judge.
Most make good faith efforts to pay and will never see a courtroom for a criminal matter. For those extreme offenders there are two options: criminal charges or civil contempt charges. Both could potentially result in an individual being incarcerated.
In a civil matter, if an individual will not make attempts to pay child support and is clearly acting in bad faith a judge can order license revocation, income withholding and in the most extreme cases, incarceration.
In a criminal matter, if an individual will not make attempts to pay and is clearly acting in bad faith he can be convicted and placed on probation or incarcerated.
Herein lies the difference between the two approaches: In those extreme cases, an individual incarcerated for civil contempt will not have the same stigma as the individual who now has a felony or misdemeanor record; and once the individual is released they will still owe child support. An individual’s responsibility to support their family doesn’t cease and shouldn’t cease, but now the individual with the felony conviction has a more difficult time obtaining a good paying job and the cycle begins anew.
The individual with a civil contempt order (even if incarcerated) will avoid having to check the “Felon” box and the extreme difficulties in finding employment that would likely result.
And to be clear, St. Louis County is the outlier in using felony charges for what should be civil contempt matters. In 2017, the average County in MO prosecuted approximately 12 felony non-support cases, St. Louis City less than 40, but St. Louis County issued 531 in that year. This type of misuse of prosecutorial discretion is why I ran for office in the first place.
As we develop our final policies we will do exactly as promised: This office will no longer prosecute or recommend jail time solely because of someone’s lack of income. We can’t continue to prosecute “poverty.” But let me be clear: our office WILL still help parents collect unpaid child support.
I promised that we would focus our resources on putting serious and violent offenders in prison. And dealing with non-violent/low level offenders, those who need treatment, mental health care, job training etc should get the tools they need to be productive citizens, with livable wages and most importantly be able to take care of their families.
Those who know me are likely aware, (and those who don’t will soon learn) that I will ALWAYS let you know where I stand.
Last, this has been such an amazing week and I am so appreciative of the messages of support and prayers. Some will not receive this message or perhaps will still disagree, to them I ask one thing: “Patience.”
I wanted to set the record straight, but now I’m going to get back to implementing the reforms & doing the job St. Louis County voters overwhelming voted me to do!