She had just one fork in her kitchen. In her early days as St. Louis’ top prosecutor, Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce was so consumed by crime and punishment that just one fork was all she needed. “I would eat my dinner, wash my fork—it takes two seconds—and put it back in the drawer; and it’s there the next night when I come home for dinner. Why would I need more than one fork?” At the time—when she first took office 13 years ago—it made sense to her.
Today, Joyce runs an office that deals with the most violent crimes and the most desperate of criminals. Painfully, we’ve seen list after list that has St. Louis ranked as one of the most crime-filled cities in America. We rationalize and attempt to diffuse the statistics because we think they’re skewed. But Joyce thinks no matter how you look at the numbers, the crime rate in the city is something no one can ignore. “I’m deeply invested and love this city, and would encourage anyone to live here. But, in some areas, we do have what I consider an unacceptable level of crime. Crime is down, it has significantly declined in the past 10 years. However, from my perspective, it’s still way too high.”
Joyce pushes a program called the Neighborhood Ownership Model. The program attempts to get citizens more involved in prosecutions. It’s hard for some of us who live in what we consider ‘safe’ neighborhoods to conceive, but Joyce says sometimes, charges won’t hold against suspects because the people most impacted by crime either won’t come forward to give statements to police or testify in court. “There are a lot of crimes where nobody saw anything; and we know people were right there and saw something. Still, they would say, No, I didn’t see anything.”
She also is an advocate of setting up a specialized court that focuses solely on gun crimes: a court that would get dangerous, armed criminals off the streets sooner and keep them off longer, or intervene in the lives of those offenders who can still be reformed. Her office in the Carnahan Courthouse downtown looks like something straight out of a TV or movie set: dark hardwood with lots of framed documents, photos and official ordainments on the walls. This, after all, is the place where justice and punishment become very real.
Joyce tries not to watch any of them, although she confesses she has caught episodes of Breaking Bad and Law & Order. For the most part, though, she would rather see shows that don’t involve violence, “We have a hyper-focus on some of the most grim and sad subject matters in the city; and I believe to keep your perspective and balance in life, you can’t focus on the negative 24 hours a day,” she says. “So when I come home at night, I tend to not want to see a show where people are shooting each other because I just looked at that all day.”
Joyce says she would rather watch something more like The Beverly Hillbillies. You have to admit time spent with Uncle Jed and Granny would be preferable to the reality that she has to deal with on a daily basis. She tells me child abuse and teen violence cases are two of the things that get to her the most. “Recently, I had one situation where one high school student shot another student over nothing. It was stupid—it was over nothing!” her voice rings with passion. “So, I have one dead 17-year-old and another 17-year-old who is going to prison for the rest of his life. There is not one molecule of joy in that scenario. I take no joy in sending anybody to prison.”
That’s why Joyce says she keeps working as hard as she does. There has been one big change in her life since she became circuit attorney: Seven years ago, she married retired Air Force colonel Kevin Corcoran, a widower with five children. At the time, two of the kids were still living at home, and all of them moved to her house in the city—an instant family. “I have to say that I have a fantastic family and a fantastic family life, and that makes me a better person all the way around.”
Now, she even has two grandkids. And yes, that kitchen drawer is full of forks.
A native St. Louisan, Brown is a lifelong journalist, and previously served as a broadcaster for KMOX and KTRS radios and ABC 30. His Paul Brown Media specializes in public and media relations.