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UMSL and St. Louis County enter second year of MacArthur grant to reduce county jail population

Beth Huebner and Herb Bernsen are in the second year of a MacArthur Foundation grant to reduce the St. Louis County jail population by 15-19 percent.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Beth Huebner and Herb Bernsen are in the second year of a MacArthur Foundation grant to reduce the St. Louis County jail population by 15-19 percent.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh led a discussion about UMSL and St. Louis County’s partnership to reduce the county’s jail population by 15 to 19 percent over two years.

Beth Huebner, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at UMSL, is the lead researcher on a $2.25 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation that makes this work possible. She joined the show alongside Herb Bernsen, the director of justice services for St. Louis County, to discuss how the project is going.

More background: St. Louis County gets $2.25 million to reduce jail population

The “Safety and Justice Challenge” grant is also at work at 10 other sites across the country — working with police and courts as well as jails.

In St. Louis, the focus has been reducing the jail population by providing more support services and resources to non-violent offenders who are considered “safe to the community” but suffer from mental illness or substance abuse issues.

“We want to make sure that we focus on individuals who have a lot of needs,” said Huebner. “We think of this as justice reinvestment. We’ll take the money we’re using for bars and for correctional officers and things like that and hopefully focus that on treatment providers. Instead of working in the jail, we can address some of the root causes of criminality. Use that money in a different way. Maybe, in the end, it won’t save as much as we think but it will, for sure, save jail costs.”

The work with this grant began a year ago with data parsing and pilot programming. Now, Huebner and Bernsen are working to bring those pilot programs to scale by a rash of hiring. “We’re bringing these projects into the implementation phase,” Huebner said.

One of the most successful programs to emerge from the grant was the pre-trial release program. Bernsen said that one of his goals is to expand the program.

“We want to give opportunities for individuals that haven’t been seen in the past as an acceptable risk a chance even if they have a significant substance abuse problems or mental illness,” Bernsen said. “With the community providers we now have, we believe we can achieve that goal.”

With this work, Hubener and Bernsen hope to find a nationwide solution to a systemic problem that has brewing for decades.

“It goes back a long way in terms of wanting to reduce the number of mentally ill in hospitals,” Bernsen said. “That was such a good idea, and then you put them into the community but if you don’t have enough resources in the community…the default place for them is jails and prisons. That’s not just happening in St. Louis County, that’s happening across the United States. The more we are able to develop those resources and alternatives and provide treatment, then we can prevent a lot of individuals from continuing to go back to jail and having to house them there.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.