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St. Louis judges deny bond entirely as cash bail usage drops, report finds

The Bail Project plans to bail out tens of thousands of people in dozens of cities. Since January, its St. Louis team has bailed out 756 people.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
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Cash bail has largely disappeared in St. Louis. Instead, circuit court judges are increasingly denying bond altogether.

St. Louis judges are denying bond for a majority of cases, even for minor offenses, a new report from the Freedom Community Center found.

St. Louis has largely moved away from cash bail since a 2019 Missouri Supreme Court rule ordered judges to consider non-monetary conditions for release. But that doesn’t mean people are waiting at home for their day in court. Instead, the report found judges in the 22nd Circuit Court are increasingly ruling “no bond allowed.” Judges opted to deny release for 57% of cases observed from June to December 2021.

“We call pretrial ‘the front door for mass incarceration,’” Mike Milton said on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air. “We also know that pretrial detention drives violence. Why? Because one day in jail means that someone can lose their job, their access to their cars and to their kids.”

St. Louis judges denied bail 57% of the time last year — even for minor offenses, report finds

Milton is the executive director for Freedom Community Center and former policy director for the St. Louis Bail Project.

Volunteer court watchers attended more than 800 hearings to compile the data in the report. They also reported that 84% of the people arrested in the city are Black, Latino or people of color, and that prosecutors working for St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner recommended no bond 86% of the time.

“We elected them to office,” said Hattie Svoboda-Stel, the policy organizer for Freedom Community Center. “We need them to be making decisions in our name that actually reflect what our communities want.”

Judges may deny bond when people are deemed a threat to public safety, but Milton says part of the issue is there is no real framework for when judges allow pretrial release. Milton said the court watchers frequently witnessed judges denying bail because people do not have a lawyer, housing or access to mental health services.

“St. Louis broadly has depended on jail to meet some of the social conditions which we know can never meet them,” he said. “And in fact, I would argue that they actually encourage violence in our communities.”

In Milton’s eyes, denying bond has just swapped places with unfair cash bail and is a step backward.

 Inmates at the St. Louis Justice Center yell to those watching from the street during a seven-hour protest in 2021 that public safety officials say started when a detainee began fighting with a corrections officer. It was the third protest over conditions at the jail within three months.
Bill Greenblatt
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UPI
Inmates at the St. Louis Justice Center yell to those watching from the street during a seven-hour protest in 2021 that public safety officials say started when a detainee began fighting with a corrections officer. It was the third protest over conditions at the jail within three months.

“The legal system is literally just shifting and adjusting to the advocacy that we're doing in the city,” he said.

The result is an increase in pretrial incarceration. In certain cases, people with misdemeanors spend more time waiting to be sentenced than they’d spend on actual court-determined sentences. People plead guilty just to get out of jail, even when they are innocent, according to the report.

In a statement, Gardner’s office said it has increased the use of summons for nonviolent defenders to bypass the bail process and offer alternatives to incarceration that reduce the jail population.

“The Circuit Attorney’s Office remains dedicated to ensuring the safety of the public while balancing the rights of the accused,” the statement read. “The suggestion that the CAO does not examine all available evidence in making prosecution decisions flies in the face of the many evidence-related controversies with St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department that have been reported by the press.”

Milton said lengthy pretrial detentions contributed to the uprisings that happened last year in the City Justice Center. Detainees smashed windows and shouted “we want court dates” at the downtown jail.

Long jail stays can have devastating impacts. Many people lose jobs and housing while waiting for their court date, even while up to 50% of those cases are ultimately dropped.

Terrion Young, a 25-year-old St. Louis native, spent seven years in prison before being released a month ago. He got a job but was soon arrested on a charge of unlawful use of weapons, of which he says he is innocent. A judge denied him bail. Young spent a week inside the City Justice Center and nearly lost his job — which could have resulted in a parole violation.

Ultimately, Mission St. Louis was able to sponsor him and secure his release.

“CJC is not the place to go,” Young said. “They’ll let you die in there. Ain’t nobody convicted of nothing, yet we all get treated like we in the zoo.”

You can read the report here.

 Mike Milton, founder and executive director of Freedom Community Center.
Freedom Community Center
Mike Milton, founder and executive director of Freedom Community Center.

Detention Oversight Board controversy 

On Thursday, the Board of Aldermen rejected Milton’s appointment to the Detention Oversight Board, which Mayor Tishaura Jones has established to address conditions in the city jails. The aldermen cited concerns over Milton’s ties to the Close the Workhouse campaign, which advocated for closing the city’s older jail.

Milton called the rejection “an enemy to progress” within the city.

“My voice over the last four years has been to speak truth to power,” he said. “To advocate for those who live in the margins, Black poor people, queer people, who are often forgotten and not believed. And so to be questioned that I would somehow take away from the process and make them more accountable is actually something that I was aiming to do anyway.”

The nomination of the Rev. Darryl Gray, another activist, also faced opposition and was pulled before the board’s vote. He too was not confirmed.

“Ninety to 95% of the people in CJC are all Black men, and you take the two Black men off the board, that shows the commitment towards the status quo,” Milton said. “It shows a commitment towards not wanting transformative change in our community.”

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 Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Kayla is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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