raceAhead: Criminal Justice Reform Comes to Saint Louis County

figurine of lady justice holding her scales
figurine of lady justice holding her scales
Zolnierek—Getty Images/iStockphoto

Sometimes local news isn’t as local as you might expect.

I spent a week during the winter of 2015 in Paris, on a work assignment. Walking back to my hotel one evening, I stopped at a small bistro for some dinner. It was a real neighborhood joint, so I joined a conversation already in progress, which was nice. The server was Italian, one of the diners was Syrian and another was from somewhere near Lyon. They graciously included me by speaking in English. Where are you from? New York, but I live in St. Louis now. Have you met Barack Obama? Kind of, but not really. How about Beyonce? Uh, no. What do think of Robert McCullough?

The last one threw me for a loop. Until last night, Bob McCullough was the long-time St. Louis County’s elected prosecutor, a man who was locally known for his controversial handling of, among other things, the grand jury inquiry into the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

But three complete strangers from different parts of the world, with no ties to the Ferguson zip code, knew the St. Louis prosecutor’s name without Googling it.

I think of that question, and the conversation that followed, often. It was a chance for them to get any insights into a story that had clearly shocked them, and a reminder for me that all sorts of people from around the world closely monitor America’s ham-handed soul-searching around race and justice.

For the record, I was unable to name-check a single local elected official in Syria, Lyon, or Italy. (I’ve since upped my international news game.)

McCullough’s reign as St. Louis County prosecutor came to a stunning end last night when he lost his re-election bid to Wesley Bell, 43, a Ferguson councilman who ran on a promise to reform the criminal justice system. It was nearly four years to the day since Michael Brown died.

It’s a system in dire need of fresh thinking. McCullough had served as a tough-talking law and order man since 1991 but had increasingly alienated both constituents and criminal justice reformers due to his draconian drug-war tactics, eagerness to prosecute protesters, and use of cash bail and similar measures. His unwillingness to prosecute Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson was, for many, the last straw.

I spent a few hours with Bell in 2016 and came away impressed. A former public defender, he had then become a municipal court judge, operating in a system known for its punitive fees. It was there that he had already begun executing ideas about nuts-and-bolts reforms, and he was optimistic. Turns out, he had reason to be. “I was the first court after 2014 to essentially do a universal warrant recall. I sent an order giving everyone a new court date,” he told The Nation before the election.“And, a few months later, I dismissed every single case that was over three to five years or older that didn’t involve violence or a victim.” He’s since become a prosecutor and has been working in a variety of capacities on reform initiatives.

Now, he’s been handed the entire mess. It’s a sign of changing times. As Mother Jones reports, some eighty-five percent of the more than 2,400 district attorney incumbents run unopposed for reelection, and McCullough had become unaccustomed to any real opposition. Reformers hope that district attorney races across the country will get the kind of attention this one has.

“People realize the need for change, they realize the need for criminal justice reform,” Bell told the Appeal. “When we talk about reforming the cash bail system or ending mass incarceration, I wouldn’t call those radical. I would call those policies that work and help people.”

You can read more about his victory here.

For any pub-dwelling politicos, here’s what I have for you: I think Bell is the real deal. He seems earnest, qualified, and unflappable; he believes in direct but iterative change, and the people who are most affected by criminal reform inaction seem to trust him. Next time I see him, I’ll let him know the world is watching.

And if the now-retiring Robert McCullough has any plans to travel overseas, he should be prepared to meet some new friends. He may be more famous than he thinks.

On Point

Helping Silicon Valley retain black, female talentThe Kapor Center and the Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology at Arizona State University are partnering with Melinda Gates’ venture capital firm Pivotal Ventures, to launch a new research initiative designed to increase the representation and retention of women of color in tech. “It would be an important contribution both to have comprehensive data on women of color and to also understand their variances and obstacles in pursuing computing, both degrees and careers,” says Allison Scott, the chief research officer at the Kapor Center. Less than 2% of the employees at the largest tech firms in Silicon Valley are black or Latina.Reveal News

Helping Silicon Valley fix the messes they’ve made
Yes, it’s true, big tech needs a lot of help these days: Their hoodie-wearing heroes have scaled their inventions into hate-speech and bias-reinforcing monsters that they should have seen coming. A new guidebook called Ethical OS is making the case that it’s possible to predict how technological changes will effect humans, thereby mitigating the likelihood of future bad outcomes. The project is a collaboration from the Institute of the Future, a Palo Alto-based think tank, and the Tech and Society Solutions Lab, a still newish initiative from the investment firm Omidyar Network. The guide includes checklists, thought exercises and 14 near-future scenarios based on real-world developments – like facial recognition technology – that might threaten a company’s business. “[W]e felt helping companies develop the imagination and foresight to think a decade out would allow more ethical action today," says Jane McGonigal the director of game research at the Institute of the Future. 

Baking diversity into your start-up from the beginning
Many thanks to longtime reader Sally Fay for flagging this delicious tidbit written by venture investor Heidi Rozen, a board member of Memphis Meats, an ag-tech outfit developing real meat from the cells of livestock. Besides the benefits to the environment and health, the company has achieved full gender parity at the staff level (leadership is 40% women) and is working toward increasing their ethnic and country-of-origin diversity as well. Click through for the nuts and bolts of their recruiting philosophy – they built their talent development engine when they had less than a dozen employees, for one thing – and they learned to retool the way they write their job descriptions. They’re also evolving their interview process. Candidates begin with a 30-minute talk on any subject. “The talks let us have a really relevant, organic conversation and put the candidate’s resume to the side for a moment,” says Megan Pittman, Director of People Operations.
Heidi Roizen


The Woke Leader

Understanding black fatherhood
One of the most persistent and damaging myths about black men is that they are inadequate or deadbeat fathers. It remains an unexamined talking point, and now that we’ve lost Cosby forever, there are not enough examples of black fatherhood in media. That’s why this new photo book from Robyn Price Pierre, “Fathers,” is such a necessary response. She initially drew from a series of photos from men of color in her life and social feed, then ultimately, the broader world. “They were fathers, vulnerable and present, and their lives were full and important,” she tells The New York Times.“None of this fullness, however, was reflected in mainstream media or the broader culture.” Enjoy.
New York Times

If you saw something, would you really say something?
This is the premise of a deeply affecting social experiment and accompanying three-minute video created by the Miami office of David, the agency partner for Burger King. Called “Bullying Jr.,” it was originally created in honor of National Bullying Prevention Month last year, but given the epidemic of people calling the police for non-transgressions, it now makes an even more chilling point. The David team hired teen actors to harass another kid in a real Los Angeles-area BK restaurant. The premise was simple: Would customers be more likely to stand up for a bullied junior human or a bullied Whopper junior?

Algorithm accurately reconstructs human faces from the brain waves of monkeys
This is a fascinating piece with a lot of implications for a world that’s increasingly driven by algorithms and other "magical tech." A group of researchers from the California Institute of Technology have successfully recreated human faces by studying groups of specialized neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys that appear to work together to recognize an individual face. The monkeys were shown photos, while their brains were being scanned. With each neuron encoding a different aspect of a face, researchers were able to recreate the faces the monkeys saw by using signals from just 205 neurons with astonishing accuracy.


Never mind what you’ve heard or think you know about Michael Brown, or about me, for that matter. You don’t know about Mike Mike. You don’t know about me. Now, you might know something, some snippet, some half a moment in time, but you don’t know my son’s life and what it meant, and an 18-second video doesn’t tell you anything about 18 years.
Lezley McSpadden

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