Is High, Cash-Only Bail for Gun Defendants Helping Cut St. Louis Murder Toll?


With recent high-profile incidents in St. Louis heightening public concern about gun crimes, the city’s top cop and head prosecutor complain that use of a tool once embraced with so much promise — setting high, cash-only bail for all weapons offenses — is waning, says the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Some argue that the two officials are using public fear to promote a program fraught with constitutional concerns. The city’s homicide rate dropped sharply in 2011, to a level not seen since 2004. Month-by month totals suggested that the dip began around the time Judge Jack Garvey launched the high-cash-bail experiment in May 2011.

At the time, Police Chief Dan Isom credited the bail program. Garvey cautiously remarked, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if it was this easy?” Chiefs from other cities became interested; Philadelphia replicated the experiment. Defense attorneys complained that making bail punitive goes against the constitutional presumption of innocence. They say that, by statute, bail should ensure a defendant’s appearance in court, measuring specific factors that include criminal, educational, and family background. Defense attorney Robert Taaffe complained then that the judiciary was overstepping its bounds. “Judges are not supposed to legislate,” he said. “It’s part of the fundamental separations of power. Judges are supposed to judge on a case-by-case basis.” Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce countered, “When someone has a gun illegally in the city of St. Louis, I think it’s entirely reasonable to assume they are a danger to the public.”

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