Jennifer M. Joyce, the current elected circuit attorney in St. Louis, oversees an office whose prosecutors, the Center for Public Integrity found, were challenged at least 167 times for alleged prosecutorial misconduct before she took office. Defendants were acquitted or had their convictions reversed in 29 of those cases. About halfway through her four-year term, Joyce and her staff seem acutely aware of the challenge ahead as they try to improve the situation in their home city.
The task is a daunting one. The top person in the office has a difficult job that tends to become more difficult every decade. That is especially so in major metropolitan areas, where the top prosecutor must manage hundreds of lawyers and support staff with a budget that always seems inadequate, deal with horrific crimes almost every day, think about prevention as well as conviction, all the while balancing the obligation to serve justice with the unavoidable scrutiny of won-lost statistics that become a factor in re-election campaigns. The difficulty has grown in medium-sized and small jurisdictions as well.
Frank Conley, just retired as chief judge of Boone County, Mo., after three decades on the bench, recalled his two terms as the elected prosecuting attorney after his 1962 victory. "In a full eight years as prosecutor, I had two legitimate armed robberies," Conley said. "Now, we have an armed robbery every night. We were just a little town back then." Today, Columbia, the seat of Boone County and its dominant incorporated area, has a population of about 80,000. "Substance abuse and the transient nature of our communities today, where you're here today and gone tomorrow, all of that has contributed to a lot of the problems we've seen," Conley said. "There is no sense of community in the sense that we knew it 30 or 40 or 50 years ago. It is gloomy."
Joyce, whose office is accountable to 333,960 citizens of St. Louis, is well aware of those problems.