Certain moments define a society and its leaders. And this is one of them. How we treat human life in the face of this unprecedented health crisis, will be the measure of who we really are as a people.
Since Ferguson, communities of color and allies in St. Louis have forced a reckoning with the shameful legacy of our criminal justice institutions — systems that have incarcerated our families for generations, sinking us deeper into poverty and creating conditions of trauma, addiction, and unemployment where violence can spread like a disease. These very systems now stand to hold thousands of women and men, disproportionately black, helpless in jail cells as the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps over our state.
The majority are there without conviction and before trial, because they cannot pay bail. Under these circumstances, bail has literally turned poverty into a potential death sentence.
This situation is only going to get worse before it gets better, and while many of us can follow the CDC recommendations, shelter in the safety of our homes, and hope for the best, some of our poorest and most vulnerable community members are trapped in jails, where adequate healthcare is nonexistent and safe social distancing nearly impossible. Unless city and county officials take action now, this pandemic will create a humanitarian disaster in our jails, putting lives at risk and adding even more pressure on our hospitals and medical professionals.
Fortunately, people like St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner and District Defender Matt Mahaffey have risen to the challenge, acting with the courage and urgency that this moment demands. City and county officials should complement these actions by facilitating community-led efforts that can help further reduce the jail population before it’s too late.
Since 2018, The Bail Project – St. Louis has provided free bail assistance and support to nearly 3,000 low-income residents of St. Louis city and county. We stand at the ready to bring more people out before this health crisis intensifies in St. Louis. All we need is the ability to conduct interviews with people at the jail over phone or video to minimize the risk of bringing the virus into the jail, and a way to pay bail online for the safety of court staff and our teams.
We have partnered with organizations like Places For People, Mission: STL, Center For Women In Transition, Criminal Justice Ministries, and Arch City Defenders, Horizon Housing, The Coalition of Continuum Care and more, that are also ready to offer support for those coming out, be it access to mental health or substance use treatment, job training, transportation assistance, housing/shelter resources, or referrals to social services in the region. This type of community intervention provides wrap-around support for individuals released, addressing some of the basic needs that might be driving someone into contact with the criminal justice system in the first place.
But we need the city and county to heed our call for action and join this effort.
I believe St. Louis will make it through this crisis, and I hope that when our grandchildren ask us what we did in this moment, we can say proudly that we came together, rising above political differences, to protect all human life. I hope we can say that we acted from a place of compassion, rather than fear and racism. I hope we can say that we worked together for our city’s most vulnerable people.
Mike Milton is The Bail Project's Statewide Policy and Advocacy manager and a long-time community organizer.