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Activists and public defenders call for fewer bond denials as jail population grows

Andrea Hall, 54, of north St. Louis, rallies against the trend of judges and Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s office lack of using bail in the 22nd Judicial Circuit Court on Monday, April 24, 2023, outside of the Mel Carnahan Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Andrea Hall, 54, of north St. Louis, rallies against the trend of judges and Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s office lack of using bail in the 22nd Judicial Circuit Court on Monday outside the Mel Carnahan Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.

St. Louis activists and public defenders are demanding judges and prosecutors rely on pretrial methods that don’t call for incarceration.

Many spoke at a rally outside the Carnahan Courthouse on Monday. Activists cite a rise in pretrial detentions at the St. Louis City Justice Center over the past few months. They are calling on the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office to recommend personal and sponsored recognizance to judges more often, methods to release people who are detained if the person promises to return without posting bond.

“They’re languishing in jail for more than 300 days on average before they are convicted of a crime,” Mike Milton, founder and executive director of the Freedom Community Center, said. “Losing everything, their houses, their cars, their jobs, their access to their children. This is absolutely horrible.”

In March, the Freedom Community Center’s Courtwatch program, which monitors bail hearings, found 153 hearings where people were denied bond, up from 132 such hearings in February, Milton said. The center also noted a 31% increase in the jail population.

Activists and public defenders are also calling for speedier trials so people aren’t waiting as long in jail. The St. Louis City Justice Center has been the site of numerous controversies. At least six people died in the jail last year. Detainees have also filed lawsuits against jail staff, accusing guards of torture and denying water.

“While there is no humane way to cage a person, there is a special urgency to get people out in our city because of the fatality of the City Justice Center,” said Sarah Nixon, pretrial organizer for Freedom Community Center.

Freedom Community Center leaders said recent high-profile incidents, including the car accident that seriously injured 17–year-old Janae Edmondson earlier this year, could be contributing to the rise in judges issuing no bond during initial bond hearings. The suspect in that crash, Daniel Riley, had violated his parole more than 50 times.

A spokesperson for the 22nd Judicial Court said in a statement that judges review a variety of factors when deciding releases and that it’s too soon to notice jail and bond trends this early in the year to draw conclusions.

“The Court invites members of the public to observe the bond review process for themselves and always welcomes feedback on how the Court can better serve citizens of St. Louis,” the statement read in part.

A representative from the Circuit Attorney’s Office said the office is dedicated to ensuring it carries out its duty and reviews each case individually when it considers bond recommendations for judges.

“We applaud the Freedom Community Center’s support of the type of reforms that the Circuit Attorney Office champions,” a spokesperson for the Circuit Attorney’s office said in a statement. “But as a minister of justice, we must ensure justice is sought for the accused and victims alike. We do not have the luxury of one-sided advocacy, so we expect to have disagreements from time to time.”

But public defenders say the rise in the city’s jail population is leading to more harm.

“We warehouse people in cages, charging them increasing amounts of money to access basic necessities,” St. Louis District public defender Matthew Mahaffey said. “And when they come out, they cannot find jobs, housing, vote, or get educational loans.”

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.