Close the Workhouse public meeting

The campaign to Close the Workhouse held a public meeting at the Deaconess Center for Child Well-Being Thu. Mar. 8, 2019. Panelist for the event were ArchCity Defenders Executive Director Blake Strode, Circuit Attorney for the City of St. Louis Kim Gardner, Bail Project St. Louis Site Manager Mike Milton and District Defender for the City of St. Louis Mary Fox. Photo by Wiley Price / St. Louis American

If you are talking about “debtor jails” in the City of St. Louis, then you are talking about the Medium Security Institution, commonly known as the Workhouse, community organizers said at a panel discussion on Thursday, March 7.

“Just a few days in jail can make someone homeless for years,” said Kayla Reed, an organizer with Action STL. “They can lose everything just because they can’t afford to pay bail.”

At the Close the Workhouse panel, St. Louis city’s public defender, circuit attorney and organization leaders formed a united front, saying that they are working together to keep nonviolent offenders out of jail while awaiting their trials. And if their efforts continue to lower the jail population, then the city can finally close the Workhouse, which has been long criticized for poor, inhumane conditions.

St. Louis District Public Defender Mary Fox said that when she took her position in 2007, there were 2,000 people incarcerated at the City Justice Center and the Workhouse. And now there are about 800. She gave much credit to St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner who “gets a lot of grief” for the progressive reforms she has implemented, Fox said, including recommending that judges issue summons instead of warrants for most misdemeanor cases (this takes posting bail out of the equation). And judges haven’t given her credit for her work, Fox said.

“This is a monumental thing that the public defender and the prosecutor are saying positive things about each other,” Gardner said at the panel.

Fox also gave credit to the nonprofit groups The Bail Project, which bailed 1,400 people out of jail this year, and the ArchCity Defenders, which has been advocating for bail reform and an end to debtor prisons for 10 years.

“The reality right now is that everyone who is incarcerated could fit into the City Justice Center,” Fox said. “But the City of St. Louis is choosing to spend $16 million to keep the Workhouse open. And there is no reason for the City of St. Louis to operate two jails at an extraordinary expense to the taxpayers of St. Louis.”

Conversations about bail reform have picked up steam citywide. In January, Mayor Lyda Krewson’s office helped to initiate the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council – which brings together representatives from the courts, circuit attorney’s office, district defender, the Corrections commissioner, Public Safety director, police and some community groups. They just started meeting in January and are working on keeping people out of jail pretrial.

Krewson has also brought in two FUSE fellows to lead discussions on bail reform. (FUSE is a national nonprofit that says it “partners with local government to help urban communities thrive.” Since 2012, FUSE has placed more than 130 fellows in 25 local government agencies throughout the country.) Yet there’s one major problem – some of their ideas are in opposition to the work that community groups are doing.

One idea the FUSE fellows pushed forward is to implement a “risk assessment” tool, which some believe would help judges determine whether or not a person will commit a crime if they are allowed to go back to their families and jobs while awaiting trial.

Fox and community organization leaders said they are opposed to risk assessment tools because they would simply replace the very same system and biases they are trying to dismantle.

“One of the goals of the mayor’s office and FUSE fellows is to create and implement a system of risk assessment in St. Louis,” said Blake Strode, executive director of the ArchCity Defenders. “I don’t think that arrived with a lot of input from the community, and I think it would be a real mistake to implement something without it.”

Michael Milton of the Bail Project said Ohio’s system is seen as a model for other states who want to use risk assessment tools. In Ohio, judges are assessing people’s finances, education level, the neighborhood they live in, the people they consider friends and their criminal records, among other things.

“Who is going to turn out in these?” Milton asked at the panel discussion. “Black people. Black people are going to be locked up.” 

Milton said the assessments rely on statistical data that inevitably reflects racial biases in the criminal justice system, from arrest to plea bargaining to sentencing. Milton instead is pushing for a needs-based assessment tool, which would look at what kind of services can be provided to the people to keep them on a straight path. And the money for these services can come from the Workhouse’s $16 million annual budget if the Workhouse is closed.

However, these ideas are not being included in the plans proposed by the mayor’s office, Public Safety director and FUSE fellows, said Fox and the community group leaders.

FUSE Fellow Wilford Pinkney said they have already heard these concerns but do not believe the plans for risk assessments counter the community’s work.

“There is evidence that, where it has been used properly, it has reduced jail populations and it has resulted in fairer bond decisions being made,” Pinkney said. “Maybe they need to know a little more about it. We are welcome to have those conversations.”

Pinkney said Kentucky is one success story where these tools are being used. However, Milton pointed to a law study that showed Kentucky’s risk assessment tool has not increased the number of people released pretrial and, in fact, Kentucky’s jail population has increased.

“It would be insulting to people that are doing this work to say they simply don’t know enough,” Strode said.

Strode said he has expressed his concerns about these plans, but that there wasn’t “an appetite to rethink risk assessment as a solution.”

Milton said the Bail Project, which is now working in 11 cities, is implementing a needs-based model that relies on adequate court notifications, community support, and voluntary referrals to social services. Milton recently made a presentation to the mayor’s office, along with Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards and the Corrections commissioner. An overwhelming majority of their clients show up for court and don’t reoffend, Milton said.

“Our early success in St. Louis shows this is a viable alternative to the current cash bail system,” Milton said.

However, Milton said that Edwards did not appear receptive to the model. Edwards did not return The St. Louis American’s request for comment.

“I think all he’s looking at is violent offenses,” Milton said. “He is shaping policy and rules around the horror stories. And I think what we represent is the majority of people who are locked up in the Workhouse every day. He needs to re-envision what public safety could be, and I think we could help him do that.”

In December, the Missouri Supreme Court established a committee of judges to research and establish a risk assessment tool that could potentially be used around the state. Pinkney said the city’s plan will be informed by this work.

Nathan Graves, court administrator of the city’s circuit court, said the judges would ultimately vote on implementing risk assessments in the courtroom and those discussions have just begun.

“Now is the time for people to express their concerns,” Graves said. “And racial bias is an important concern.”

The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council is a great place for people share their thoughts, Graves said. Its next meeting is from 2-4 p.m. Tuesday April 2 at the Civil Courts Building, 10 N. Tucker Blvd. En Banc Courtroom on the 12th floor.

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