A couple of decades ago, Janet Thompson found herself a second-seated attorney in a case being argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.
She was there to help refine the language allowed in death penalty trials. It was a case she and her fellow attorney, Rosemary Percival, won. She remembers sitting only a few feet from Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“That was a moment I will cherish for the rest of my life — to have seen her in action that day,” Thompson said.
That was among many memories Thompson keeps from her nearly 25 years as a public defender, and it’s those sorts of opportunities that make her miss the job.
Thompson switched careers in 2012, when she won the Northern District Boone County commissioner seat for the first time. This year she’s seeking her third term but is challenged by Republican Tristan Asbury.
Despite some sadness about no longer being part of the legal profession, Thompson feels she’s in a better position to achieve her goals.
“As a public defender I always felt like I was almost Don Quixote,” Thompson said. “You know, trying to tilt at windmills, trying to change the system from that vantage point. And then I realized that as a commissioner I might have the ability to help effectuate change on a broader level.”
As a public defender, Thompson focused on helping disadvantaged people in the courtroom and advocating against the death penalty. As a commissioner, her focus has transferred to helping the same people by fixing the interplay among public systems.
“We have been working for the last eight years to figure out how to integrate our services for folks who are, in the vernacular, called ‘justice-involved people’ — people who often intersect within the criminal justice system and the health care system and the social services system,” Thompson said. “And as a community, we’re doing a bit better in terms of aligning those systems, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
For many years, Thompson watched vital services sacrificed to budget cuts. That costs the county more than people realize, she said.
“One time the sheriff and I were sitting down and just chatting,” she said, “and I said, ‘You know the first time that I really saw (the impact) was when the then-governor was balancing the budget, and he closed a bunch of mental health hospitals in Missouri. And I saw pretty quickly thereafter a spike in my case-load.’ And he kind of looked at me, and he said: ‘That spike in your case-load was a spike in mine, too.’”
As Thompson sees it, public officials need to study whether such cuts simply shift the burden elsewhere. A basic question, she said, is ‘How do we keep people out of the criminal justice system?”
“Because we can save money if they don’t enter the system in the first place,” Thompson said. “And if they do end up in the system, then it’s: ‘How do we keep them from re-offending.’ No man’s an island, right? If that person has other obligations or relationships, that impacts other systems.”
Cutting from one side of the plate reinforces systemic problems, Thompson said.
“Person A or B ends up in county jail. And they have children. Or a significant other. And then they can’t make the bond that’s set, then sit in jail for 30 days,” Thompson said. “They’re going to lose federal benefits, SNAP benefits. The cost spreads.”
Thompson also tries to address such challenges through the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri’s Subcommittee for Ventures in New Ministry. She coordinated disaster relief after last year’s flooding and worked on connecting Missouri men from rural communities and communities of color, who’ve seen disproportionately high suicide rates, to mental health services.
Recently, Thompson convened a group of community leaders to submit a preliminary application for an Upward Mobility Grant from the Urban Institute. Boone County has now become a finalist. She also serves in organizations like the National Association of Counties, where she is a member of the association’s Justice & Public Safety Committee and chair of the Juvenile Subcommittee. She has taken part in a broad range of research and collaboration.
Karen Miller, a former Boone County Southern District commissioner and treasurer for Thompson’s campaign, was also active in the National Association of Counties.
“My biggest worry when I left county government was that we wouldn’t stay active on the state and federal level. Janet’s more than handled that,” Miller said.
Thompson often discusses challenges common to counties across the country with her National Associated of Counties colleagues. During a candidate forum, she referenced a recent webinar about a homeless shelter model hosted by representatives from Johnson County, Iowa.
One of the achievements Thompson is most proud of is establishing the Mental Health Staffing Program, which has helped around 300 pretrial detainees gain access to the treatment court judge, mental health care providers at the Boone County Jail and the jail administrator to address their cases more appropriately. She said the program connects people with important resources and costs taxpayers nothing.
Thompson’s brother, Ian Thompson, said equitable justice has been at the forefront of Janet Thompson’s career. He recalled a case in which his sister was representing a client whose mental illness prevented them from even conceiving what they had done was a crime.
“I think she had tremendous compassion for them, as well as the victims,” he said. “And now she’s asking how we can do a better job of serving everyone.”
Miller said she’s also effective in working with her commission colleagues.
“The County Commission is a three-headed monster,” Miller said. “It needs a collaborative influence. She helps keep things flexible.”
Her ability to mediate, Thompson said, is the most important legal skill she’s brought to the commission. She said it’s important to avoid assuming you’re right, but instead to take in ideas and work toward solutions together.
“You know, we’re all people. So sometimes we get hung up in personal stuff, but ... all people in county government, most of the time, really want to do the right thing for their constituents,” she said.
Thompson’s supporters say her work ethic makes her fit for the job. She has to balance the demands of governing with her passion for owning, training and riding show horses.
“How many people do you know begin the day riding a 16-hand horse at 4 in the morning, then clean stalls, be in her office at 6 a.m., work all through the day, go out to Hallsville, and come back to answer correspondence, talk with other public servants, and do it all again?” Ian Thompson asked. “Do it all with a smile on her face. I’m not sure I had that much energy 20 years ago.”
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Thompson spoke with a Missourian reporter from a gas station, having towed two victorious horses home from a competition in Springfield, Illinois, gotten them settled, cleaned stalls and then run to get groceries for a house-bound neighbor.
Her brother said Thompson gives every constituent call its due attention. He recalled that during her first term, someone called to complain that no one was cutting the grass in a rural cemetery. Thompson went and did it herself.
Thompson said there’s a short answer for why she’s seeking another term. There’s more work to do, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made some issues more pressing, such as the need for a homeless shelter.
The deaths of her mother and a neighbor, both in their 90s, over the summer changed the way she views this election. She said they cherished the right to vote in every election. She said she hopes people aren’t losing their excitement for civic duty during a strange election cycle.
Ian Thompson said their mother taught them to care about the most vulnerable. “With that as an underpinning, I’ve never been at all surprised (Janet)’s in public service.”
Janet Thompson said her parents instilled in her the importance of leaving the world a better place.
“It’s been a joy to serve the county,” she said. “I’ve heard people say that this could be a political stepping stone, or this is an easy job, or whatnot,” she said. “Walk with me through one week. It’s just about learning ... There’s always a new issue. There’s always a way to fine tune a process or a policy that will make things better for Boone County.”