St. Louis County Prosecutor: I’m taking a different approach to criminal justice


St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell spoke in Harmon Hall last week.
Photo by Matt Hampton

MATT HAMPTON | Sports Editor

Video by Kayla Drake

Wesley Bell, who was elected as prosecuting attorney for St. Louis County last year, spoke in Dunseth Auditorium in Harmon Hall last week.  

Bell, who recently passed 100 days in office, said that prosecutors traditionally push a “lock them up, be tough” message to be elected.  

“We’ve seen this ‘puff your chest out’ approach, and all we’ve seen are violent crimes increase, homicides increase; it doesn’t work,” he said. “And the war on drugs, which is really a war on race and poverty […] it sounded good, but it doesn’t work.”

After talking about criminal justice reform, he took questions from students and professors who attended.  In response to a question about proposals to merge the city of St. Louis with St. Louis County, he said it should only be up to the voters directly affected, but the area should “start thinking regionally.”

“If the entire state is voting on it, it’s a non-starter,” he said. “If we came up with a plan that worked for city and county voters, this could be the ninth or tenth largest city in the country.”

Bell talked about eliminating cash bail, which he said is an unfair policy because it keeps nonviolent offenders in jail before trial if they cannot afford bail, while people arrested for violent crimes can buy their freedom. He said focus needs to shift to violent offenses from low-level crimes.

“If I look in my bank account, and $2,000 is gone, that’s tough, but I’d rather that than have a gun pulled in my face,” he said after the event. “Economic crimes are serious, but they’re not what families are worried about for their loved ones, as opposed to the violent stuff.  Those are the focus, whether there’s violence, threat of violence, that’s the line.”

Bell said even a short stay in jail increases the likelihood a person will re-offend, and it harms their economic well-being.

“If you didn’t show up to work for three weeks, would your job just be there waiting for you? Probably not, right?” he said. “Think about if you have bills to pay, mortgage or rent to pay, is your landlord just going to leave your place there for you and say, ‘Whenever you get back, don’t worry about it.’?”

Bell said cash bail reform was implemented in Philadelphia, and did not result in fewer people showing up to trial, despite fears offenders would avoid coming to court.

He also supports diversion programs to treat mental health and substance addiction issues rather than sending low-level offenders to prison.

“If someone has a drug problem, and you treat the drug problem, they’re more likely to be productive citizens, right?” he said.

Bell graduated from Lindenwood in 1998 and later taught at St. Louis Community College – Florissant Valley and Harris-Stowe State University and worked as a city councilman in Ferguson.  

In 2018, he was elected the first black prosecutor for St. Louis County in an upset against longtime incumbent Robert McCullough.  Bell said he was able to make up for his opponent’s fundraising advantages through the energy of his volunteers and engagement with voters.