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$300k grant aims to help St. Louis County solve racial inequities in its jail

St. Louis County is interested in joining a statewide eletronic monitoring program for people awaiting trial once Missouri gets it up and running.
Sarah Fentem
St. Louis Public Radio
Researchers from George Mason and Florida State universities, and the University of Missouri-St. Louis, have gotten a $300,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation to study racism and racial inequities at the St. Louis County jail.

St. Louis County officials hope a new grant from the MacArthur Foundation will help address racial inequities at the Buzz Westfall Justice Center.

“Since taking office more than three years ago, my administration has made it a priority to do everything that we do through a lens of equity,” County Executive Sam Page said Wednesday in announcing the $300,000 grant. “And that includes how we run the Justice Center and how we treat residents who are under our care.”

Over the next 18 months, researchers from George Mason University, the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Florida State University will spend time talking to corrections officers and residents of the jail in what’s called a Plan, Do, Study, Act process.

Racial inequities in the criminal justice system as a whole are widely understood and acknowledged. Page said the process will help identify specific problems with racism and inequity in the county jail itself.

“We know when we address racial inequities, that our residents are going to be more successful when they leave. And our employees here will be more successful in their work in trying to get our residents on a pathway to productivity and employment,” he said.

The jail has undergone several reviews and audits since Page took office in 2019. But researchers said this latest review is structured differently.

“It’s not a top-down process. It's really a bottom-up process,” said Faye Taxman, a criminology professor at George Mason University who will be helping lead the research. "And what makes this different is the people who work and also who live in the jail are part of designing solutions.”

For example, Taxman said, substance use treatment programs found that something as simple as changing the intake process made it easier for patients to get the care they need.

The review will last for 18 months, enough time to complete the first three steps of the process. Taxman said the researchers would be working with Scott Anders, the jail’s director, and other jail staff to give them the skills to implement some of the changes suggested in the process.

One goal of researchers is for St. Louis County to become a model for using the PDSA process in correctional facilities.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.