Alderman Spencer’s Hesitancy on Criminal Justice Reform

Jake Lyonfields
12 min readMar 18, 2021

(Before we begin, I should note that as a longtime constituent of Alderman Spencer’s, I have had the chance to ask her in person what title she uses. She clarified to me that she uses the term “Alderman,” so I use that title in this piece.)

Alderman Cara Spencer notched an unexpected top-two finish in the March primary for mayor of the City of St. Louis, advancing her to the April runoff, along with Treasurer Tishaura Jones.

Alderman Spencer’s second-place finish is a testament to many things, most notably her relentless hard work and grit, as well as the city’s new approval voting-based election system.

To progressives like me, Alderman Spencer’s second-place finish was a welcome development: Reed, a more conservative Democrat, was my third-most preferred candidate by far — well behind both Treasurer Jones and Alderman Spencer. I am truly glad to have two candidates who are farther left than our last two mayors duking it out to be our next one. I am also excited that my longtime Alderman is on the citywide ballot.

But, I will without hesitation vote for Treasurer Jones on Tuesday, April 6th, not only because of the many things about Treasurer Jones that impress me greatly, but also because of Alderman Spencer’s hesitancy on my number one voting issue: criminal justice reform.

To be clear, in this article I comment far less on Alderman Spencer’s published mayoral platform than I do her actual criminal justice reform record — willingness to take positions on issues, votes cast, and consistency of stated positions. This is not to say a mayoral candidate’s platform is unimportant, but I personally place far more emphasis on a candidate’s actions, rather than words on a website.

Most recently, Alderman Spencer declined to clarify her position on decriminalizing sex work

To begin with, when I read in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s January 14th, 2021 article about the mayoral primary candidates’ views on decriminalizing sex work, I was both surprised and not so surprised to see Alderman Spencer demur when asked what her stance was on the issue:

A fourth candidate, Alderman Cara Spencer, said prostitution has become a serious problem in some neighborhoods but that ‘our current punitive strategy isn’t working well’ to protect the community or sex workers from the effects of the sex industry.”

“However, she said she won’t take a position on whether prostitution should be decriminalized entirely until she obtains more information on how it’s currently prosecuted.

Perhaps at first glance this seems like a reasonable stance. Why not first gather more information before taking a position?

However, it is worth noting that Alderman Spencer has been serving my Ward for many years, and the sex industry is both robust and prominent in and around the neighborhoods that make up our Ward. In context, then, it is strange that Alderman Spencer indicates a lack of familiarity with how the Circuit Attorney’s office prosecutes sex workers and the sex trade at-large.

Still, what is stranger is the argument that anyone needs to know the specifics about how local prosecutors go after sex workers before formulating a position on decriminalizing sex work.

Simply put, we should not be criminalizing it at all. Maintaining criminality for offering sex services makes it harder to address the numerous public health and safety concerns that are adjacent to or wrapped up in many sex workers’ experiences in the industry, including STI transmissions, human trafficking, and drug use and abuse.

And third, it is worth noting that the Post-Dispatch’s article itself explains how the Circuit Attorney’s office handles cases involving sex workers. Unfortunately, despite this clarification, Alderman Spencer has still refused to publish a position on the matter, something that frustrates both criminal justice reform advocates, as well as St. Louis’ queer community.

Despite Stockley’s abuses and the protests following his acquittal, Spencer voted to put Prop P on the November 2017 ballot

I mentioned above that I was also not surprised to see Alderman Spencer refuse to take a position on decriminalizing sex work. That’s because as her longtime constituent, I have seen Alderman Spencer avoid taking key positions on criminal justice reform issues before, including decisions about whether to increase police funding.

Not three years after the Ferguson Uprising, activists and organizers created enough political pressure in 2016 to force Circuit Attorney Gardner’s predecessor, Jennifer Joyce, to charge Jason Stockley, a white, former St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department officer, in the 2011 shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith, who was Black.

Jason Stockley gunning down Anthony Lamar Smith generated one of the largest wrongful death civil settlements in the city’s history. And even after that civil settlement, it took grassroots organizers an incredible amount of energy and time (5 years) to successfully demand that he be prosecuted.

If anything, the Stockley trial was a reminder of how much work was still necessary to achieve true criminal justice reform in our city, especially within SLMPD.

Evidence released in late 2016 showed several alarming abuses by Stockley that went unchecked by SLMPD or the St. Louis Police Officers Association (the police union). These included Stockley firing at a fleeing suspect (in violation of department policy), the reasonably strong evidence that Stockley planted a gun in Smith’s car after Stockley killed him, and the audio recording of Stockley claiming before shooting Smith that he was “…going to kill this motherfucker, don’t you know it.” (This Riverfront Times article does a great job summarizing these and other details of the case.)

Stockley’s abuses as a city police officer — and the lack of willingness by multiple public institutions to hold him accountable — will come as no surprise to this city’s progressives. It is no secret that despite the litany of calls to action in the Ferguson Commission Report, police reform efforts in the City of St. Louis have largely been unsuccessful since the 2014 Uprising. SLMPD practically speaking refuses to give an inch — an opposition that is successfully reinforced by the SLPOA and its obstinate, racist business manager, Jeff Roorda.

In the shadow of all of this, the city’s Board of Aldermen voted in July 2017 to put on the November 2017 citywide ballot a measure called Proposition P, which was a half-cent sales tax increase that would create an additional $13 million per year for SLMPD. Alderman Spencer was among those Alderpersons who voted to put Prop P on the citywide ballot.

To be clear, there were reasonable arguments for Proposition P. SLMPD officers were and are paid less than their counterparts in many parts of St. Louis County. As a progressive, I strongly believe that public sector workers should be paid livable, robust wages.

But what I strongly disagreed with was the willingness of many at our Board of Aldermen, including Alderman Spencer, to put in front of voters a proposal to raise another $13 million per year (notably, in the form of a regressive sales tax) for SLMPD without extracting any meaningful reforms in the process.

The only thing more frustrating than Alderman Spencer’s vote to put Prop P on the citywide ballot, however, was her refusal to take a position on whether citizens should vote for it.

As her constituent, I asked her a few days before the November 2017 election what her stance was on Prop P, as I had not seen a position statement from her. Remember: by this time Stockley had been acquitted, and the Stockley Protests (and the numerous problematic displays by SLMPD during these protests) were in full swing.

Her response was that she would not be taking a position on Prop P:

To this day, I still cannot decide what is more disheartening: my Alderman’s insistence that voters should get to vote on a regressive sales tax that would give our police department an additional eight figures per year with no strings attached, or her refusal to take a public position on the measure.

Prop P passed in November 2017, fueled by vague promises by elected officials and the police union that it would benefit public safety. Three years later, our city hit a 50-year high in our homicide rate. I still do not know whether my Alderman, who stresses her desire for criminal justice reform and who wants to be our city’s next mayor, thinks Prop P was a good idea.

Alderman Spencer initially refused to commit to the Close the Workhouse campaign

While there are other examples of Alderman Spencer’s hesitancy on the issue of criminal justice reform, I would like to zero in on one more: her refusal in 2019 to support the Close the Workhouse (CTW) campaign.

The closure of St. Louis’ notorious medium security institution has been a top priority of progressives for quite some time. In fact, progressive organizations have been publicly criticizing the inhumane and grotesque conditions at the Workhouse since at least 2009. And, while the percentages have varied over time, it has always been the case that the overwhelming majority of inmates at the Workhouse are locked up there awaiting trial, simply because they cannot afford to post bond.

To her credit, Alderman Spencer now supports the CTW campaign. She voted in the summer of 2020 for a bill to close the Workhouse. Her vote for that bill should be celebrated.

Nevertheless, Alderman Spencer did not always support the CTW campaign. In fact, she explicitly refused to do so while running for re-election in the spring of 2019. Her shifting views on the issue speak to a lack of consistency that is worth evaluating, especially as she professes a desire to pursue criminal justice reform as our city’s next mayor.

In the spring of 2019, Alderman Spencer was facing a primary challenge from a Black woman, Ms. Satia “Sunni” Hutton, who mounted a campaign running to Alderman Spencer’s left. Ms. Hutton had the support of the Ward organization, and she had a history of organizing for progressive causes in and around the Ward. The challenge was widely considered to be a competitive one, given the aforementioned factors, as well as the reality that the 20th Ward is majority-Black.

It was in this context that Alderman Spencer and Ms. Hutton filled out Action St. Louis’ #WokeVoterSTL Board of Aldermen 2019 Voter Guide, which contained the question, “Do you support the demand to close the Medium Security Institute? Please explain.

Here was Alderman Spencer’s answer:

While generally a laudable and relatively progressive response, it clearly does not answer the question at hand. As a resident of the 20th Ward tasked with choosing between Alderman Spencer and Ms. Hutton in the March 2019 primary, I followed up with a Facebook post requesting that she clarify whether she did in fact support the CTW campaign.

Here was the back-and-forth that followed in the comments:

The conversation for the most part ends there (again, here is the link to the post for anyone interested).

As is evident, in her responses to me and to Mr. Rose Alderman Spencer again clearly hems pretty closely to the position of supporting the CTW campaign, but she also again refuses to explicitly commit to it.

This was frankly strange to digest, as the rest of her answer would lead most readers to reasonably conclude that she supports the campaign at least in spirit, if not in practice.

And, had she not posted any comments beyond her first reply to my post, I would not have as much of an issue with her response. But her comments did not stop there: instead, in her second comment Alderman Spencer cited the possibility of violent individuals being released from the Workhouse to possibly threaten her constituents.

This not only is a scare tactic that has clearly racist implications, given that the inmates of the Workhouse are disproportionately Black and Brown men (our country has a long political history of painting Black and Brown men as threatening and criminal), but it also is simply disingenuous.

At no point has the CTW campaign endorsed the notion of violent inmates being released. Such a remark by a public official only delegitimizes this longstanding criminal justice reform endeavor. Yet, Alderman Spencer decided to post it, anyway. In doing so, Alderman Spencer either did not understand the campaign’s demands, or her remark was deliberately disingenuous. Both of these possibilities are unacceptable and inconsistent with any professed desire to champion criminal justice reform.

But, Alderman Spencer eventually reversed position, moving from avoiding taking a position on closing the Workhouse to openly embracing the CTW campaign’s goals.

This reversal apparently came just 7 months after she won re-election to her aldermanic seat in the 20th Ward in April 2019 (and, notably, only 5 months before she publicly declared her candidacy for mayor). In January 2020, St. Louis on the Air documents Alderman Spencer criticizing the fiscal impact of keeping the Workhouse open.

And, five days before that St. Louis on the Air piece, Alderman Spencer posted to Facebook a link to an article by the Guardian about the CTW campaign. That article detailed the story of Ms. Inez Bordeaux, who was thrown in the Workhouse for a month in 2016. Alderman Spencer thanked Ms. Bordeaux for sharing her story:

Alderman Spencer’s change of position was summed up in her own words in a St. Louis Public Radio article from July 2020:

Alderman Cara Spencer, D-20th Ward, who’s running for mayor, said she was one of the people persuaded by advocacy groups.

‘I wasn’t always in favor of closing the Workhouse,’ she said. ‘They educated me. I listened to that work, and I’m glad that by virtue of the strong coalition we have supporting this now, we have all come on board.’ ”

To be clear, I emphatically believe that people authentically change their minds — even politicians.

However, it can be very important to ask why — especially when it comes to politicians.

In this situation, I have to admit that I am skeptical of Alderman Spencer’s relatively sudden change of heart. This city’s progressives have known for years the facts behind the CTW campaign: the Workhouse is costly to our city, the Workhouse is a hellish, abusive environment, and keeping the Workhouse open is inconsistent with any honest local criminal justice reform agenda. Nothing that Alderman Spencer cites publicly from January through July of 2020 is new information that the CTW campaign hadn’t already been telling St. Louisans for years.

Indeed, if Alderman Spencer was open to being “persuaded by advocacy groups” about the CTW campaign, then perhaps she should have been listening more closely to Ms. Bordeaux all along.

The story Alderman Spencer thanked Ms. Bordeaux for sharing is one that Ms. Bordeaux has been discussing publicly since at least 2018, as is documented in the CTW campaign’s report from that same year (see the sections I’ve highlighted below):

Again, I want to stress that I am glad that Alderman Spencer now supports closing the medium security institution. But the hundreds of Black and Brown people who have been locked up in the Workhouse over many years — again, the vast majority of whom are there on pretrial detention — needed her consistent support years ago.

Hesitancy will not win meaningful criminal justice reform

In the lead-up to the March mayoral primary, progressive leaders in the city urged progressive voters to cast approval votes for both Treasurer Jones and Alderman Spencer. They argued that securing a top two finish for these two more progressive candidates would allow progressives several weeks to honestly debate policy differences between the two candidates, and then to choose the progressive leader better suited to meet this moment in St. Louis’ history.

I am hopeful that with this piece, I have contributed respectfully and thoughtfully to that debate.

History clearly shows that hesitancy is rarely a winning political strategy. And, systemic racism in our criminal justice system is far too engrained to be uprooted by anyone who is anything less than absolutely willing to boldly challenge the status quo.

Treasurer Jones supports decriminalizing sex work. Treasurer Jones opposed Prop P. Treasurer Jones was the first mayoral candidate to come out in favor of closing the Workhouse.

For these and so many other reasons, Treasurer Jones is the better, bolder, more consistent mayoral candidate on criminal justice reform.

I hope you’ll join me in voting for Tishaura Jones on Tuesday, April 6th.