I must have been 14 years old when I was arrested for shoplifting in the St. Louis Galleria Mall. I was a young boy from North St. Louis, we were poor and I wanted to have what other kids had. The encounter with police was terrifying, but what I remember most clearly are the judge’s words: “I see hundreds of young men like you every year and they grow up as terrible people. You are on a fast track to being just like them.”
He looked at that 14-year-old boy and, based on one mistake and his assumptions about “young men” like me, thought he could predict my future. Turns out his prediction wasn’t just racist, it was wrong. I was fortunate that my local community church intervened, looked at me as a whole individual rather than just a criminal charge or a statistic, and loved me in a way that transformed the way I interacted with the world.
In my work as a community organizer and site manager of The Bail Project – St. Louis, I see stories like this play out every day, with judicial determinations that rob people of meaningful interventions and doom them to fail and cycle through the criminal legal system for the rest of their lives. Nowhere is this more clear than when cash bail is set without regard for a person’s ability to pay and with the goal of holding them in jail even while they’re presumed innocent under the law. People’s lives are destabilized, exacerbating the very conditions that might have brought them into the system in the first place.
Thankfully, over the past two years, bail reform has acquired a new sense of urgency in St. Louis politics. But while cash bail seems to be on its way out, other harmful approaches are creeping in. Chief among them is the growing trend of using algorithms when making decisions about a person’s liberty before trial. These “actuarial risk assessments,” as they are called, take criminal justice data that is riddled with racial and economic disparities and use a series of factors, including age, to try to predict what a person might do.
Missouri recently ordered the implementation of these algorithmic tools in pretrial proceedings, and they are currently being piloted in St. Louis city and county courts. Many criminal justice experts have expressed extreme hesitation about these algorithms due to the potential to codify racial bias into “risk scores” that appear objective on the surface.
In 2016, ProPublica released a study of one algorithmic tool and concluded that “the formula was particularly likely to flag black defendants as future criminals, wrongly labeling them this way at almost twice the rate as white defendants.” And just last summer, data and law experts from MIT, Harvard, and other universities sent a letter to the Missouri Supreme Court task force and St. Louis’ presiding judges, expressing their concerns about these tools and warning about the “fundamental flaws” of this approach and the fact that “the technical problems cannot readily be resolved.”
There is a better way: treat people like individuals rather than statistical “risk scores” and focus on disrupting the cycles of poverty and vulnerability that keep so many trapped in the revolving door of mass incarceration. This requires offering pretrial support that is needs-based and community-led, like we have done at The Bail Project – St. Louis for more than 2,500 St. Louis residents to date.
It also requires investment in the things that actually make us safe and prosperous: affordable housing, healthcare, education, economic opportunities. The Close the Workhouse campaign, of which we’re a core partner, has released a detailed blueprint for how to get this done with the same taxpayer dollars that are currently being spent to keep the Workhouse open: $16 million a year.
St. Louis has an opportunity to truly lead when it comes to bail reform. We can end cash bail, close the Workhouse, and invest in the things that really matter to help our communities thrive. Or we can repeat our shameful history using algorithms.
Let’s not miss our chance to do the right thing.
Mike Milton is the site manager of The Bail Project’s St. Louis office and a long-time community organizer.