Campaigning as a criminal justice reformer, former Missouri state Rep. Kim Gardner easily won the 2016 election to replace Jennifer Joyce, who was leaving her post as the St. Louis’s top prosecutor after sixteen years. Across the U.S. a new wave of prosecutors had just begun to roll into office on progressive promises to tackle issues such as mass incarceration and cash bail. Backed by a network of activists, Gardner became the first black circuit attorney in city history, the Riverfront Times in St. Louis reports.
Many staffers assumed that a reform-minded prosecutor with an interest in ending mass incarceration would be more receptive than Joyce in re-evaluating cases they considered problematic or short on evidence. Instead, one of their first direct messages from Gardner was a staff-wide email chastising prosecutors for what she saw as a disturbing trend of staffers trying to reduce charges or dismiss cases. “When Kim is referred to as a progressive prosecutor it makes me cringe,” one recently departed staffer says, adding, “Her approach has been, when in doubt, lock them up.” Another ex-prosecutor says Gardner and her executive staff seemed overly sensitive to the suggestion that they would go easy on criminals. “I think she knew that that’s what people thought, and she was doing everything in her power not to appear soft on crime,” the former staffer says.