Missing The Forest For The Trees: Evaluating Criminal Justice Reform in Missouri

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. 

In Solidarity,

Mallory Rusch
Executive Director

2 Responses
  1. Teri Powers

    I have toured the Medium Security Institution several times since January, 2010 after my son (a 100% service connected US Army Veteran of the 1st Gulf War) was shot by a crisis intervention trained police officer who failed to use his
    CIT training. This was at approximately three a.m. on a night with temperatures below 30 degrees. My son had been dumped on Manchester Blvd. by a police officer from University City. Not knowing where he was, inebriated and probably psychotic, my son attempted to gain entry to a Denny’s Restaurant which he believed to be open 24/7. The employees mocked him and refused to allow him entry. In frustration, my son kicked a window of the restaurant which shattered. An employee reported the police officer in question exited his police van with his gun drawn and fired on my son. To justify the officer’s actions, the police initially charged my son with attempted burglary. My son was wearing a guitar strapped across his shoulder that he had purchased earlier in the evening from a musician at the Pageant. The homicide sergeant in charge of the case telephoned me and mentioned the guitar and didn’t want it in evidence as “it might be misplaced”. I retrieved the guitar later that day at the police station downtown. My son then faced a felony charge of destruction of private property. (Several weeks later, a police sergeant, Jason Love, attempted to serve a warrant at a place of business When he was unsuccessful, Love broken the plate glass door of the business and cut tires on four automobiles parked on the street – in front of the officers he supervised. Love was not charged with a felony. He was transferred to duty in Forest Park.

    My son was housed at the Medium Security Institution and I had reason to complain on several occasions. Once my son informed me that he was not allowed a blanket. That was quickly rectified. On another occasion, I observed a correctional officer handle my son roughly, shoving him into a chair with his hands locked behind his body. My son contorted his body, brought his hands to the front, grabbed the visitors phone and screamed. The correctional officer knocked my son out of his chair and yelled at me, “This visit has ended.” I stood in the hallway watching the security monitor as my son was dragged through a corridor. None of the employees monitoring that video reacted to that scene. I later telephoned Jim Roth who was Public Safety Director at the time and was able to tell him the date and time that action had occurred. The correctional officer was moved from my son’s pod.

    I developed a working relationship with Commissioner Dale Glass after a former patient from the outpatient psychiatric program where I worked recognized me while I was touring the facility with the Board of Aldermen Public Safety Committee. I was a member then of NAMI’s advocacy board and connected NAMI management with Commissioner Glass. NAMI managers trained MSI managers in recognizing symptoms of mental illness. Commissioner Glass advised NAMI to apply for a grant so that all MSI employees could be trained in recognizing symptoms of mental illness. I was also able to coordinate with Commissioner Glass when family members informed me of inmates who had untreated mental illness. I have worked closely with the Board of Aldermen Public Safety Committee for the past decade. BoA President Lewis Reed was able to purchase and deliver portable air conditioners to the facility. Also Commissioner Glass informed me that inmates were being held in the newer part of the facility. Rumors of continued infestation were denied by the individual who resigned rather than continue to contract to provide services to the city for the MSI and the Criminal Justice Center after false information was reported about continued infestation. And the BoA Public Safety Committee strongly advised against “Closing the Workhouse” until locks and other repairs were made to the Criminal Justice Center. And, as a retired licensed clinical social worker, I maintain that contact with family members is crucial to rehabilitation of inmates. Commissioner Glass had reported that he could not find facilities in state or closer than a four hour drive away. A video or zoom conference with an attorney does not suffice for the attorney/client relationship and confidentiality.
    Teri Powers

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