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St. Louis County among 20 jurisdictions competing for funds to reduce jail populations

St. Louis County jail
File photo
The St. Louis County Jail is located in the Buzz Westfall Justice Center in Clayton, Mo.

St. Louis County hopes its efforts to reduce its jail population and reform the municipal court system will get a boost from the MacArthur Foundation.

Applications for the second round of funding from the foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge were due Wednesday. St. Louis County was one of 20 jurisdictions that received $150,000 to study its jail population and develop policies to reduce it. A second round of funding will help those jurisdictions fund the interventions.

"People who are awaiting trial are the largest group in jail," said University of Missouri-St. Louis criminology professor Beth Huebner, who led the team applying for the grant in St. Louis County.  Making up another large share were "people who were returned to jail because they violated the terms of their probation, not because they committed a new crime."

According to official statistics, there were 1,229 people in the St. Louis County jail on Dec. 1, 2015, just barely below maximum capacity. Nearly 65 percent of those were individuals who remained in jail without being convicted of a crime because they could not afford to bond out, and another 30 percent were detained for violating the terms of their probation.

Early intervention

The team would use part of the grant to boost a pretrial program that allows some nonviolent offenders to await trial at home, while receiving services like treatment for mental illness or addiction. The grant would also help speed up the court process.

"All of the research suggests that jail is very stressful," Huebner said. "It can be criminogenic. These individuals have not been convicted of a crime, or they're on probation so we've already deemed them of less risk and suitable to be in the community. We know that if people are in the community with their families, they’re much more likely to do better in the long run."

Procedural justice

Though the focus of the challenge is on reducing the jail population, the St. Louis researchers would also help fund the development of tools to make the municipal court system in St. Louis County easier to navigate. In collaboration with CivTech, they want to build a system that would send text messages to defendants to remind them of their court dates, and a website that would allow for online payments or get indigent defendants connected to community service options.

The number of people in the St. Louis County jail on municipal ordinance violations is small, Huebner said, so the changes wouldn't lead to a big reduction in the jail populations.

"We want to focus on this idea of procedural justice," she said. "We want people to be able to trust the courts, to work with them. We think that the focus on the court reminders, the focus on community service, will kind of bridge some of the larger challenges we’ve had in the criminal justice community."

Huebner said the group studied the Ferguson Commission report and drafted its proposals to respond so its critiques of the region.

Next steps

Grant applications from all 20 cities are due Wednesday. All will get a phone interview with the foundation sometime in January. An announcement is expected in March. Ten will eventually receive as much as $4 million over two years, with the possibility of an extension.

The county will be able to implement some of the changes without the additional funding, Huebner said. The pre-trial program is already in place, and programing that's more responsive to the needs to women and minorities is already under development.

"The technology group [CivTech] has some additional funding and some great support from the local philanthropic community, so we're going to continue that anyway, but the MacArthur funding would help it in scope," Huebner said of the effort to develop the municipal court notification system.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

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