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How St. Louis County’s Jail Population Dropped 22% Over The Course Of A Year

Beth Huebner is a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis County has significantly reduced its jail population over the past year, as Missouri Lawyers Weekly reported last month. Officials say the drop from an over-capacity total of 1,242 inmates in July 2018 down to 965 as of May 2019 has a lot to do with justice reform efforts that began in the wake of Ferguson protests.

University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist Beth Huebner has led research in collaboration with the county, its circuit court and service providers – an effort fueled by $4.5 million in grant funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Huebner joined host Sarah Fenske to discuss the progress she’s observed in the county system as well as aspects of it still in need of change.

Huebner touched on some key distinctions between jail and prison, noting that about 70% to 80% of people in jail are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime.

“So they are pretrial,” she explained, “and they can be there for pretrial offenses ranging from something as serious as a murder to something as small as a municipal traffic offense.”

The research efforts in partnership with St. Louis County began with a data-driven analysis looking at who’s in jail, what they’ve done and how long they’ve been there.

“We have to make sure that the community is safe and that people don’t flee,” Huebner said. “At the same time, we know that even three days in jail, pretrial … can have a detrimental effect on your family relationships [and] on your job. So the goal has been to understand who’s at greatest risk to the community, who can be supervised in the community safely, and what’s the best way to do that.”

She added that the goals of the MacArthur-funded project go beyond simply reducing the jail population and are aimed at broad reduction of racial and ethnic disparities across the American justice system.

“That’s been a big effort of ours, and that’s one of the reasons that we looked at the people [in St. Louis County jail] who have violated their probation,” Huebner said. “Those individuals were spending 12 or 13 days longer [in jail], people of color, than a very comparable white defendant.

“And so we saw a lot of differences there, and we have reduced those differences in terms of length of stay for probation violations. We do continue to see racial disparities in the jail, as I’m sure jails do across the nation, but we are working on a couple of different processes to try to reduce that, which is very difficult.”

Listen to the full discussion:

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Alexis Moore. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.