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Criminologist, Prosecutor And St. Louis County Executive Talk Jail Reform

Sam Page, Beth Huebner, Julia Fogelberg
August Jennewein | University of Missouri-St. Louis
Joining host Sarah Fenske for a conversation in front of a live audience Feb. 20 were (from left) St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, UMSL criminologist Beth Huebner and Julia Fogelberg with the St. Louis County Prosecutor's Office.

St. Louis County’s jail population has dropped significantly over the past couple of years, from an over-capacity total of 1,242 in the summer of 2018 to 930 inmates as of last week. The sustained decrease has been touted as one positive outcome among the justice reform efforts that followed protests in Ferguson.

Much work remains — and thanks to five years of research led by University of Missouri-St. Louis professor of criminology and criminal justice Beth Huebner and funded by the John and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, collaboration continues between the researchers and the county, its circuit court and service providers.

During this year’s Pierre Laclede Society Community Confluence donor event at UMSL on Feb. 20, St. Louis on the Air host Sarah Fenske talked about ongoing efforts in the county and addressed lingering challenges.

She was joined by Huebner, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, and Julia Fogelberg, director of diversion and special programs for the St. Louis County Prosecutor's Office. The conversation was recorded for broadcast and aired during Monday’s noon show.

Huebner and Fogelberg kicked off the discussion with an overview of what prompted the MacArthur grant in the first place and what’s been driving St. Louis County’s participation.

Fogelberg said that County Prosecutor Wesley Bell’s platform, focused on reform, fit in nicely with the grant-funded research infrastructure, which was already in place when Bell took office just over a year ago.

“We see both locally and nationally really high rates of people who do not pose a risk to the community — because they’re nonviolent and who are not flight risks — being incarcerated with very high bonds,” she noted. “And so something that we looked at, when we came in with the new administration, is [what] does make the community safer and what makes the community more stable.

“And we find that incarcerating people, who again are not a danger to the community, makes your community less safe and less stable — because you’re taking people out of homes, out of jobs and away from their families. And so we really want to look at making sure — if somebody is incarcerated awaiting trial and they haven't been convicted of anything — that there’s a real reason for that. And we don’t want the reason for that to be lack of access to resources or lack of access to money.”

Sarah Fenske, Sam Page
Credit August Jennewein | University of Missouri-St. Louis
Sarah Fenkse, at left, talks with audience members and guests including Sam Page, at right.

Page, who took office in April 2019, hired a new director of the jail, Raul Banasco, about six months later. He said that choice was part of his administration’s larger goal of improving the county justice system.

“We wanted the best,” Page said. “We’ve struggled with our justice services, and we’ve struggled with, over the years, inadequate resources and inadequate attention to justice services. But we had a national search, and we went out and found someone who had great credentials and actually participates in reviewing and credentialing jails across the country.”

When Fenske inquired about the five deaths of inmates reported in 2019, Page said he and colleagues have “spent a lot of time studying that.”

“We do know that in our justice services, we will get sick patients,” said Page, who is also an anesthesiologist. “We will get people who didn’t have any health care before they came into justice services; we’ll get folks that are withdrawing from controlled substances. And that’s a challenging population, and we know statistically some of them will get sick and some of them will go to the hospital. It was my opinion that that rate of people getting sick, people going to the hospital, people even unfortunately dying, was higher than it should be. But it is a national epidemic.

“Deaths in jails are happening across the country — there’s a lot of national attention to them. And in Missouri, we’re particularly susceptible to that. We’re not a Medicaid expansion state; we don’t have good health care resources for folks in our community. So many times the first time they’re getting health care is when they’re coming into the jail.”

Fogelberg noted that the prosecutor’s office has started a new partnership with law enforcement thanks to grant money available through the St. Louis County Public Health Department to combat the opioid epidemic.

“The purpose of that grant is to take these types of efforts one step further,” Fogelberg said. “One issue that law enforcement has currently is they come into contact with someone in the community who’s in the middle of struggling with an addiction, and they don’t know where to take them other than the jail, because that is the training that we receive and that’s the system that has been built.”

With this partnership, she added, there will be a focus on providing alternatives and connecting people to the services they need rather than carting them off to jail.

Fogelberg credited her boss, Bell, with spurring stronger collaboration with existing local organizations. They now provide everything from job-readiness programs to financial planning and treatment services.

“He brought a lot of those players to the table to say, you know, ‘We want to be able to connect individuals who need help with these services — you guys are doing the same thing in the community; let’s all sit down,’” Fogelberg said. “So we have a meeting once a month where we sit down with our diversion advisory committee and all of these players, and talk about who can do what and what our greatest needs are.”

The progress the county has seen during the five years since the MacArthur-funded efforts began is the opposite of a quick fix, Huebner said. And she stressed that sustaining the changes is even more important than the initial positive shifts.

“I think the key is, for the whole team — and I know this will continue after I’m done with the grant in about a year and a half — is to continue to look at those numbers, to continue to challenge [ourselves]: ‘Who’s in this jail? Who needs to be here? Who doesn’t?’” she said. “And so I think it will evolve over time, but I do think [the jail population] will go down again.”

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 Joshua Phelps. 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.