Last week, the beleaguered Editorial Board of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published an opinion piece in reaction to a news story that 200 detainees facing federal charges have been bussed to out-of-state jails following the closure of the St. Louis Medium Security Institution, colloquially known as The Workhouse. The Editorial Board posits that these “inmates” are now “inhumanely cut off from their lawyers and family members” so that Mayor Tishaura Jones could score political points by fulfilling a campaign promise to close the Workhouse, a demand from local advocates over the past several years.
The piece was widely shared on social media, predictably sparking finger-pointing and blame-gaming. It is so easy to get caught in the weeds on issues such as these, so I wanted to take the opportunity this week to zoom out and talk about the big picture of criminal justice reform in the state of Missouri.
At Empower Missouri, we believe that there are five crucial areas for criminal justice reform across the state. They are as follows:
- Policing: We advocate for policies that dramatically reduce bias in policing, ensure that citizens’ rights are protected in all interactions with law enforcement, and hold police officers accountable for inappropriate use of force or other violations of citizen rights.
- Pre-Trial Supervision: We uphold the core principle of our justice system that a person is innocent until proven guilty and advocate for most non-violent individuals awaiting trial to be monitored in the community (where they can continue to work and care for their families) rather than in pre-trial detention.
- Trial: We advocate for an expansion of Missouri’s woefully underfunded public defender system, fair jury selection practices, and fair sentencing guidelines. We advocate for community-based restorative justice solutions for all non-violent offenses, particularly drug-related offenses.
- Incarceration: We advocate for an incarceration system that is focused on rehabilitation, not punishment. We advocate for humane conditions for all detainees as well as full access to healthcare, education, job training, and substance abuse treatment.
- Re-Entry: We advocate against policies that continue to punish formerly incarcerated individuals who have completed their time in prison. We fight for expungement of nonviolent criminal records, full access to employment and housing opportunities, and reunification with families.
These areas roughly fall along a continuum, with some loops built in throughout. In an ideal world of reform, you might choose to start at the “beginning” and focus on policing reforms, hoping to significantly reduce the number of individuals entering the pipeline. You might start with a conversation about the criminal code in the state and determine what crimes are truly deserving of incarceration versus other more restorative or community-centered practices. You might launch a state or national campaign to re-evaluate the “war on drugs” and raise awareness that incarceration has been a completely ineffective weapon in that “war,” only further damaging vulnerable communities.
However, reformers don’t have the luxury of operating in an “ideal” world. We seize opportunities as they arise, trying to fix smaller wrongs in the service of completely overhauling an unjust system. The Workhouse was a cesspool. It was inhumane even on its best days. The Post-Dispatch knows this well, having reported on the overdose deaths of multiple inmates who weren’t given prompt medical attention, as well as multiple lawsuits brought by detainees over significant health and safety concerns about conditions ranging from poor ventilation to infestations to lack of water to improper heating and cooling. In recent years, it became a rallying cry for many local advocates and organizers who garnered national attention for their efforts. Major Jones closing the Workhouse was unequivocally the right thing to do.
Unfortunately, criminal justice reform is often a bit like playing whack-a-mole. Just because you’ve solved one issue, doesn’t mean that you’ve fixed the whole system. And, in the short term, solving one problem can actually exacerbate other issues. In this instance, the court system is severely backed up due to scheduling issues related to COVID (alongside a dearth of public defenders and severe issues with the St. Louis prosecutor’s office) and the City Justice Center (plagued by its own issues of unrest driven by detainee complaints) simply doesn’t have the room to hold the backlog. Does that mean that we should have continued incarcerating people in a dehumanizing, wildly unsafe environment at the Workhouse? No. It means that we should reform our cash bail system and invest in both public defenders as well as community monitoring programs for all non-violent pre-trial detainees. This will drastically decrease the need for pre-trial detention and allow the Justice Center to house only individuals who pose a significant risk to public safety.
So, is it ideal that pre-trial detainees are being held in other states? Of course not. But the original article from the Post-Dispatch indicates that detainees are well-cared for and do, in fact, have access to their lawyers (in accordance with the law). And while, of course, it is important for detainees to have access to loved ones, is it more important than being safely and humanely housed? No. It is a folly to second-guess progress that has already been made. Rather, we should turn our attention to what is driving the current problem, and address those issues next. Do not get distracted by the Post-Dispatch editorial and other attempts to entice us towards regression. Kudos to the advocates who fought so hard for the Workhouse closure and to Mayor Jones for making good on her promise to heed the will of the community.
Eyes forward. There is much work to be done.
Want to get involved in policy change to reform the criminal justice system in Missouri? Join our Criminal Justice coalition.