MacArthur Safety and Justice Challenge, Part II; Saint Louis Increases Pretrial Incarceration 21.1% in Year One

In the wake of the Ferguson riots, Criminal Justice Reforms in Saint Louis increased pretrial incarceration by an astonishing 21.1% in one year…

May 29, 2018


As part of our ongoing investigation into the “success” (or lack thereof) of the MacArthur Foundation’s effort to reshape mass incarceration, we shift our focus this time on Saint Louis, Missouri.

Part II:  St Louis, Missouri 

The MacArthur Safety and Justice Challenge is a series of grants to many local jurisdictions to reduce jail populations and basically reduce mass incarceration.  It is thought that by implementing a bunch of new “best practices,” designed by ivory-tower criminologists, it would simultaneously reduce racial bias and disparities within the criminal justice system.

According to the Safety and Justice Challenge website…

The Safety and Justice Challenge is providing support to local leaders from across the country who are determined to tackle one of the greatest drivers of over-incarceration in America—the misuse and overuse of jails.

As a result of acceptance in the challenge – and millions in grant money – these jurisdictions have spent countless hours and dollars to implement the various changes.

They wrote grant applications, had to track and provide data presumably, and had to expend other state and local resources to set up the changes.

In the wake of the Ferguson riots, which happened inside the borders of St. Louis County, Missouri, revealed in the aftermath was that there needed to be a drop in local jail populations and that there was a continuing need to reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system.  Nuisance crimes and true debtor’s prison issue in the post-conviction context were in need of an immediate remedy.

Citing the problems with racial disparities in the criminal justice system and a full jail, St. Louis County obtained the grant from the MacArthur Foundation to fix these problems.

To do this, they came up with very detailed strategies: (1) Expanding a pretrial release program for carefully screened individuals; (2) Implementing a speedy hearing process for those with technical probation violations; (3) Helping municipal courts promote better understanding of procedures and easier access to court information for defendants; and, (4) Working with community providers to secure mental health and substance abuse treatment along with employment services.

Having now obtained a $2.25 million grant, the County was off to rewrite criminal justice “best practices.”  In fact, the Safety and Justice Challenge website lists the grant as the only “solution” to the problem of jail crowding and racial disparities in the criminal justice system.  With year one in the books, the question on everyone’s mind is a simple one: did it work?

We issued an open records request to St. Louis and other local governments who are part of the Safety and Justice Challenge in order to see what happened.

In the case of St. Louis county, the first year of results are not only terrible, but how the County continues on with this effort simply boggles the mind.

After year one of the MacArthur Safety and Justice Challenge, St Louis INCREASED their jail population by 4.7%

The grant resulted in an increase of the total jail population by 4.7%.  The pretrial population, which represents those in jail awaiting trial, increased by an astounding 21.1%.  So much for successful bail reforms in St. Louis.  The goal of course was to decrease the jail population by 15% over three years.  If these trends continue the result will be to increase the jail population by 14.1%.

After year one of the MacArthur Safety and Justice Challenge, St Louis INCREASED their pretrial jail population by 21.1%

So, was the increase in jail population at least offset by a reduction in racial disparities?  Well, not exactly: racial disparities actually increased.

The disparity ratio of African-American to whites in terms of total length of stay increased from 1.33 to 1.58.  For the total pretrial population, the disparity ration increased from 1.57 to 1.71.  What this means is that after the reforms, the lengths of stay are increasing proportionally for African-Americans in the St. Louis County jail.  These increases represent increases in the disparity ratios by 18.8% for length of stay of the total population and 8.9% in length of stay for the total pretrial population.

This is but another example of how throwing a bunch of money at a problem can backfire.  In the case of St. Louis County, it was the reduction of the jail population and addressing racial disparity – all while calling for the end of private bail agents in St. Louis County who have been in the business of reducing the jail population for decades – responsibly we might add.

While it may be time to talk about reforms, what is clear is that launching new pretrial supervision programs and thinking that simple text reminders are going to save a lot of money is not the answer.  St. Louis County flushed $2.25 million down the drain to increase its average daily jail population by 4.7%.  At cost of $75 a day, that adds up to an additional cost to the community of $1.62 million per year.

The results in St. Louis are not only pathetic, it is simply shameful.  Imagine what that kind of money could have accomplished in the prevention of crime and advancement of opportunity?  In one study, investing in preschool education for African-American students returned $16.14 per dollar invested in terms of preventing future costs in the criminal justice system and reducing mass incarceration of African-Americans.  See Investing in Prevention.

Let’s not forget the indirect costs, like the costs to the persons involved in the criminal justice system and the ruinous impact it has on their lives and the perpetuation of the system.

It’s an easy observation – the MacArthur grant and the jail increase costs could have been used to instead effect a lasting $62.46 million annually to positively impact to the community.  Instead, it will inevitably be about the bureaucracy and coming up with more excuses why more government employees should be hired to further entrench this status quo of failure.


Missed Part I?

Results In: Bail Reformer MacArthur Foundation Spending Millions to Increase Mass Incarceration in the Palmetto State

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