In a mostly empty St. Louis courtroom, a man sat in the jury box, facing the judge. He was in an orange jumpsuit, as were the three men closest to him.
These men were inmates at the St. Louis Workhouse, the jail in North St. Louis. They were in jail because they couldn't afford bond. These men haven't been convicted of anything, and they were all just waiting for their trials to start or for their cases to be dismissed. They were in court because a federal judge recently ruled that people should not lose their freedom simply because they're poor. St. Louis has until Friday, July 21 to give everyone a real hearing.
Bond reduction hearings are supposed to be an opportunity for people accused of crimes to go before a judge, explain that they do not have money, describe their ties to the community, and ask to be released pending a trial, oftentimes with some conditions attached.
That's a lot to go through. But before the federal judge got involved, these hearings could take just 60 seconds per person. Pre-trial detainees reported that they were told to be quiet and just get through it. With the federal order in place, all of the hearings I saw took 10-15 minutes. They were real hearings.
The man sitting in his orange jumpsuit was there to have his bond reduced to $500; he'd gotten someone to loan him that money.
At one point, the judge asked, "How long has he been in jail?"
The public defender answered, "Several months."
The judge, visibly upset, put his hand to his face and said lowly, "That shouldn't have happened."
Today, close to 400 people are kept in poor conditions in the Workhouse, and it costs St. Louis $16 million to keep it open.
On the same day as many of these court hearings, Cure Violence, an international organization that reduces neighborhood violence by hiring and training local mentors and mediators, was presenting at the Deaconess Foundation. They have successfully reduced homicides in cities and towns throughout the world, including Kansas City. Each site they run costs about $500,000 and serves between 10-20,000 people.
For the cost of one Workhouse, we could have 32 Cure Violence sites in St. Louis, which would cover more than the entire city. For a tiny fraction of our public safety budget in our state, we could be doing a lot more to ensure the public's safety.
Our policies are backward and broken. We need policymakers, and especially an attorney general, who shows up, listens, and has real plans in place to make Missouri a better and fairer home for all of us.
The judge got through three of the four pre-trial detainees in his court. The fourth was represented by a private attorney, but many of the private attorneys on these cases did not receive notice that their clients were even having hearings. So the judge made sure to call the attorney. During the wait, the judge mentioned how he had plenty of time to have more hearings, but he wasn’t being assigned more.
While the judge was asking for more work to fix this problem, his attorney was arguing that he needed less and that poor people should remain in jail. His attorney is our attorney general, and the attorney general’s staff went to federal court to argue that the Friday deadline was too soon, that the judges couldn’t possibly review the cases. The federal court disagreed, and so did this city judge.
During this crisis – while men and women were being dressed in orange jumpsuits and held in cells just because they couldn’t afford a few hundred dollars, while our neighbors were losing their housing and jobs as a result of their stays, while our justice system was broken and some judges were still setting high bond amounts for non-violent crimes despite the federal ruling – our attorney general was nowhere to be found.
I’ve represented people who were held in the Workhouse, including an innocent 18-year-old who lost seven months of her life because she couldn’t afford her bond. That experience has affected her entire life. While our communities face the consequences, our government has no sense of urgency.
We need a government that truly protects the rights of the people, not the money of the powerful.
Elad Gross is a constitutional and civil rights attorney and an educator in St. Louis. He is a candidate for Missouri attorney general.