Q&A with Brendan F. Kelly, state’s attorney, St. Clair County
IBJ: You’ve spoken recently on the topic of crime and economic development and how one affects the other. It seems you’ve given it a lot of thought.
Kelly: We try to look at the issues of violent crime, the nexus between criminal justice and economic justice and social justice. They are all the same thing; you can’t have one without the others. That’s particularly true in the greater East St. Louis area where you’ve seen over decades how the loss of manufacturing impacted local governance, which in turn impacted poverty, which leads in the end, of course, to crime.
It is a chicken and egg problem. What do you do first? Do you need jobs in order to reduce crime or do you need to reduce crime in order to attract jobs? And the answer is both.
IBJ: How do you address it?
Kelly: We’ve done what we can in the way of prosecution, in terms of getting more law enforcement to this area — begging and pleading at the state and federal level for any resources we can get to beef up the presence of law enforcement. Not to lock more people up but to be present in the community and to deter crime. I think it’s the tremendous burdens that have been placed on law enforcement that have contributed to the tension between law enforcement and the citizens. Absent sufficient resources for public safety and infrastructure related to public safety, I think we’re going to continue to have a challenge in the greater East St Louis area, which impacts the entire region.
IBJ: And not just St. Clair County?
Kelly: The entire Metro East. It’s sad to say, but if you look at crime that’s occurring anywhere you can tie it to those conditions. It’s a trifecta of ineffective governance, poverty and violence. It’s a dangerous stew. If you look at the number of officers working in the East St Louis area per capita rate of crime, it’s simply not enough. The state police cut back on their graduating classes. I lobbied both Gov. Quinn and Gov. Rauner to re-emphasize that. I’ve made some progress on that with (House Speaker Mike) Madigan, (Senate President John) Cullerton and Rauner. The consensus is it’s important but prioritizing that has been difficult.
IBJ: Resources take a lot of money.
Kelly: They do, but you have to invest in public safety in order to see a return in terms of economic activity. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard from people on boards of corporations, their officers or small businesses that have considered investing in building in areas like East St. Louis. Then, they do their due diligence in terms of the crime statistics and they see the per capita homicide rate and they are scared away from investing in those communities.
IBJ: How much of that is just image, though?
Kelly: It is, some of it is just psychology. But a lot of business, investment and consumer choices are based on psychology. Look at Times Square in Manhattan, a perfect example. My grandfather was a New York City police officer, and you’d hear stories from my family about what a dangerous and unpleasant place Times Square was. Now, it is tourism central and business central. They made a serious investment. They invested in additional police officers and they trained the hell out of them. They trained them to be good officers, to be able to interact with the public, to be deterrents, not just to lock people up and throw away the key but to be community oriented.
Having a sufficient number of well-trained, thoughtful police interacting with the community — that will produce dividends. Then you’ll see, as you’ve seen in other cities where they’ve made it safe, they’ll attract businesses.
IBJ: It took them about a generation or more to address Times Square.
Kelly: It did. It’s a generational project. The conditions we have in the greater East St. Louis area were multigenerational in getting there. Places like Cairo, down south, it’s the same thing. It’s not an unidentifiable problem. It’s not a mystery. We’ve seen it happen in other parts of the country.
IBJ: You’ve had some difficult budget cuts?
Kelly: Our general fund has been cut significantly as the state has been unable to pay its bill to the county. Our probation cost, which the state is supposed to subsidize, the county has eaten that.
Police are under a lot of pressure because their budgets are cut. While the need for criminal justice reform is appropriate, so is the need for us to be smarter about how we reduce recidivism and how we reduce the cost of incarceration and invest in things like treatment and diversion programs. We’ve learned a lot of lessons from that, but we still have the very basic need for public safety that is frankly not being met at this point.
I think additional federal prosecutors and federal agents can be helpful as well. They get cut, too, and they have hiring freezes, and their ability to be as effective a partner as we’d like is hindered in some ways.
IBJ: Have you been able to make up some of the budget difference?
Kelly: We’ve managed to fight to get additional resources, to get grants from the state and federal government.
I have lost some programs but luckily been able to add some, on issues like domestic violence and sexual assault and focusing on illegal gun offenders. Those are the people most likely to shoot and be shot, a perpetrator or a victim of violence.
IBJ: How about the drug culture right now? The big problem with the opioids? How it’s affecting employers and people getting jobs?
Kelly: This is an unprecedented event, probably, in American history, in terms of drugs, particular opioids, having a cost to the economy. That includes heroin, fentanyl and prescriptions. It is causing tremendous damage to families, which in turn causes tremendous damage to good employees and employers. Some drug waves, like crack cocaine in the ’90s, affected a limited demographic, but this opioid epidemic has no limit in terms of who it affects. White, black, rich, poor, professional, not professional, working class, white collar — it has effected everybody.
IBJ: This is not new, but it’s sort of like it landed with a thump. Couldn’t we see some of this coming?
Kelly: I would say it is new in some sense. The heroin we’re seeing now is nothing like the heroin from the 1970s. There was a deliberate and conscious effort to develop a new type of heroin by the cartels in Mexico and South America. They brought in chemists from Southeast Asia and adjusted the refinement, made it much more pure so you didn’t have to inject it with a needle. The delivery mechanism changed and that social stigma went away.
These guys working these cartels are very smart businessmen. In a sense, they are not that different from the tobacco executive in the ’60s. The cartels saw what was happened with the wave of prescription opioids, what the pharmaceutical companies were doing selling pain management on doctors and other health-care providers. The opioids — Vicodin, Percocet, oxycodone, hydrocodone — are essentially a legalized form of heroin, the exact same chemistry. There was more and more of this being prescribed. The cartels saw this happening and saw this cycle of addiction beginning to build in almost every household in America. They were ready for this; they hit this wave of overprescription at just the right time.
IBJ: Is this going to be a generational thing to solve?
Kelly. I think it will. And it’s going to take an acknowledgement and an approach that’s not politically correct. We’re going to have to ask ourselves why there is such an insatiable demand. Those are deep societal issues. The huge amount of money put into this has distorted our policy making and the decisions at the state and federal level.
IBJ: Some employers have stopped giving drug tests so as to not turn away potential employees.
Kelly: I think that’s a cultural issue. I talk to a lot of business agents that work for unions, and other small businesses. It’s the cannabis issue that’s discouraging them from doing drug tests.
IBJ: Now they are talking about further legalizing recreational use of marijuana.
Kelly: I have colleagues in other states where they have done that and managed it. There’s a debate. I think we have to see more research about it as to whether or not the availability of cannabis makes it less likely that people will be using opioids. I have to see more research before I form a solid opinion. Illinois has legalized medical marijuana and decriminalized possessing amounts under 10 grams, and we’ve seen a drop in those cases. There’s a shift in attitudes. Folks in law enforcement and in forming government have to triage here. We have to make some informed decisions about how we approach the issue of cannabis as opposed to things like heroin and meth.
IBJ: How about white-collar and blue-collar crime? Embezzlement, fraud, scams and such?
Kelly: It’s nothing new, and I think the Attorney General’s Office has done a good job at (addressing) that. As long as you’ve got human beings running business, you’ll always have some people making bad choices.
IBJ: How much of it is driven by gambling or the costs of things in general — driving people to steal?
Kelly: That’s an age-old question, isn’t it? There are people who are extremely wealthy who steal and there are people that are very poor who do not. Some of it has to do with character or what’s going on with a particular individual. But I don’t think fraud or scams are driven so much by economic need as they are individual greed.
America’s system of free enterprise has been its greatest economic engine and has lifted more people out of despair and squalor than any other economic system in human history. But there are some mutations that occur, some perversions of the system, driven by politics or greed or benign neglect as opposed to someone’s deliberate choices. That’s where we have a duty to come in and try to correct the balance. But I think we all have some accountability for our own actions.