MacArthur Foundation awards St. Louis County, UMSL additional $2.25 million to continue local justice system reform

by | Oct 24, 2018

New funding for a project led by Criminology and Criminal Justice Professor Beth Huebner will help advance strategies aimed at safely reducing St. Louis County's jail population.
Beth Huebner

Criminology and Criminal Justice Professor Beth Huebner will continue serving as the lead researcher for St. Louis County’s efforts to reduce the county jail population with new funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. (Photo by August Jennewein)

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is extending its support of efforts by St. Louis County and the University of Missouri–St. Louis to safely reduce the county’s jail population and reform the local criminal justice system.

The foundation on Wednesday announced that it will grant $2.25 million to continue building on work led by UMSL Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice Beth Huebner, bringing its total investment in St. Louis County to $4.5 million to date.

The grant is part of the Safety and Justice Challenge, a $148 million national initiative to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails. The foundation committed a total of $22 million on Wednesday to 25 cities and counties – 12 new and 13, including St. Louis County, that were already part of the growing national movement to address the misuse and overuse of jails. St. Louis County was first selected to join the collaborative Safety and Justice Challenge Network in 2015 and has since used the resources and funding it has received to implement bold reforms, including expanding the pretrial release program and developing an innovative model for addressing the needs of individuals who are returned to jail for a probation violation.

As a result, the population of the county jail has declined by 5.6 percent since 2015, and there has been significant progress in reducing racial disparities. The average length of stay for African Americans has fallen to 82 days from 113 days, a 28 percent reduction. For white individuals, the average length of stay has fallen 15 percent, to 69 days from 81 days.

“I am proud of the progress St. Louis County has made in safely reducing the jail population,” Huebner said. “St. Louis County has made tremendous reform in the past three years. The county has relied on evidence-based practices to address the needs of the citizens while maintaining community safety. There is much progress yet to be made. I am confident that the leaders of St. Louis County will continue to work together on the reforms implemented over the past two years and will see a further reduction in the jail population and racial disparities in the system.”

As part of a new initiative, a Jail Population Review Team began meeting weekly this summer to streamline case processing and expedite releases. The team is composed of judges, county employees, law enforcement officers, public defenders, probation and parole officers, prosecutors, service providers and community advocates. The thoughtful actions of the Jail Population Review Team have contributed to a 19 percent reduction in the number of individuals awaiting trial for nonviolent felony charges.

In addition, 1,400 local citizens have received housing and employment assistance and substance abuse and mental health treatment as part of the challenge grant.

The new round of funding will provide St. Louis County and its partners with additional support and continued expert technical assistance to strengthen and expand strategies that address the main drivers of local jail incarceration, with the goal of further reducing St. Louis County’s average daily jail population by 5-10 percent in two years.

“We are proud of the progress made to date in safely reducing the jail population and acting as a model for other counties across the country to show reform is possible,” County Executive and UMSL alumnus Steve Stenger said. “Thank you to the Safety and Justice Challenge, along with our team at the Justice Service Center and partners like UMSL for their continued and tireless efforts to create real, measurable change. I look forward to continuing this great work.”

In partnership with the courts, police department, prosecuting attorney’s office, public defenders office, Missouri Probation and Parole and local social services agencies, St. Louis County has developed a comprehensive plan for additional reform strategies over the next two years. Key strategies and initiatives to achieve this goal and create a safer, more effective system include:

  • Pretrial release strategies;
  • Improvements to case processing efficiency; and
  • Enhanced services for people with substance abuse issues involved with the justice system, particularly as the opioid crisis continues to grow in the community.

Three years after its public launch, the challenge network has grown into a collaborative of 52 counties, cities and states modeling and inspiring reforms to create fairer, more effective local justice systems across the country.

“There is growing demand for criminal justice reform across the country, and local jurisdictions are leading the way,” said Laurie Garduque, MacArthur’s director of justice reform. “MacArthur is increasing our investment because we are seeing promising results and an appetite for more reform as evidenced by the diversity and creativity of the solutions implemented and tested across the network. While progress is not always easy, and there is no single solution or quick fix, these jurisdictions are proving it is possible to rethink local justice systems from the ground up with forward-looking, smart solutions.”

St. Louis County Presiding Judge Gloria Reno, a UMSL alumna, added: “This additional funding from the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge will provide critical support for our mission of providing equal access to justice for all. In collaboration with our local and national partners in this important criminal justice initiative, we will continue to improve the lives of defendants, taxpayers and the community for years to come.”

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Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik