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The Bail Project Closes St. Louis Office As Cash Bail Use Sharply Declines

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After more than two years with the Bail Project, Mike Milton launched the Freedom Community Center this past spring.

When the Bail Project opened an office in the city of St. Louis in 2018, it found fertile ground. The nonprofit organization uses its revolving bail fund to get people out of jail while they await their day in court. That year, it expanded from an operation in the Bronx to one with national reach.

In St. Louis, cash bail requirements were common, and many defendants lacked the resources to post even a few thousand dollars. Mike Milton, a St. Louis native hired as one of the office’s first “bail disruptors,” says the office quickly served up to 200 people every month, posting up to $5,000 for each one, allowing people charged with crimes to keep their jobs and stay at home while waiting for trial.

The St. Louis office soon became one of the largest Bail Project sites in the U.S., even as Milton became the organization’s statewide policy and advocacy director for Missouri. More than 3,000 defendants were released from jail in St. Louis due to the Bail Project’s efforts.

And they made good on the chance they were given. Bail Project statistics show that people returned for their court dates 86% of the time. The cases of nearly 50% were ultimately dismissed — suggesting they never should have been in jail in the first place.

The Changing Landscape For Cash Bail In St. Louis
Listen to Robin Steinberg and Mike Milton on St. Louis on the Air

But many things have changed in recent years — both in St. Louis and for Milton. Now that he’s launched a new restorative justice organization, Freedom Community Center, the Bail Project is making a big shift. The organization is closing its St. Louis office and trusting Milton to handle the occasional cases that still require its bail fund.

And those cases truly are “occasional” these days, as Milton explained on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air.

“For example, in the month of August, we didn’t have anyone who received cash bail as a final bail amount, not one person,” Milton said.

That doesn’t mean everyone waits at home for their day in court. Mindful that the Bail Project is lending its services when cash bail is granted, some city circuit court judges have now moved to not allowing any bond at all.

“There's been an increased use in ‘no bond allowed,’” Milton said. The organization's CEO, Robin Steinberg, "talked about this a lot early on in the Bail Project days, that the system will just adjust to some of the reforms that are happening," he said. "And that's exactly what we're seeing with the court.”

Last month, he said, 57% of all new criminal cases filed in St. Louis Circuit Court received a “no bond” status. It could have been even higher: Despite Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s image as a progressive reformer, city prosecutors had asked for “no bond” in 86% of all cases.

Even so, Steinberg sees cause for hope, citing the big increase in cases in which people are now freed without cash bond, as well as the restorative justice work Milton is doing in conjunction with Gardner’s office and both crime victims and defendants.

“We're talking about dismantling a system that has been in existence for generations, and systems do not go down without a fight. They will fight for their survival, right?” she said. “So the idea that in St. Louis city, that our team and coalition with lots of other people in St. Louis have been able to move change forward to the extent that they have in the past four years is incredible and inspiring, and really fills me with hope.

“I will also say that change is also never a straight line, right? So that’s why it's critical that we build power and communities to continue the work, who can push that change forward, so that those systems don't recreate themselves and create the same harm. But certainly we think every time we close our doors because there's been significant change in the jurisdiction, like St. Louis city, that's a success. And that's a victory and something that we're incredibly proud of.”

The Bail Project will continue to maintain its offices in St. Louis County and in St. Charles County, Steinberg said.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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