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COVID-19 policies that emptied jails not linked to crime spike, reports find

Tables inside the St. Louis City Justice Center
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Tables and cells inside the St. Louis City Justice Center

The world changed in drastic ways during the first years of the pandemic. As schools and public events reduced capacity, local criminal justice systems moved to reduce the populations of their local jails by allowing more people to be released on supervision before trial — yet, that pivot came as cities across the country, including St. Louis, experienced historic spikes in homicides.

The combination has led researchers to consider a theory: Would jail population and crime data during the pandemic reveal a connection between the emergency pandemic jail policies and the increase in crime?

According to two recent reports, that theory isn’t supported by data. Released last month by the MacArthur Foundation, the reports show that “most people who are released from jail do not come back,” said criminologist Beth Huebner.

Beth Huebner, seated for a portrait, is a professor of criminology and criminal justice.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
Beth Huebner, director of criminology and criminal justice at Arizona State University, has spent years researching St. Louis crime and public safety trends.

Huebner, who now works as the director of criminology and criminal justice at Arizona State University, spent more than a decade as a criminal justice professor and researcher at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She worked on the collection of St. Louis and St. Louis County data for the new reports.

"In many ways,” she said, “the reports argue these are two different phenomena — the changes in the jails are different from the increases in violent crime."

One report, “Jail Populations, Violent Crime, and COVID-19,” analyzed data from 23 cities and counties. It found an average 38% decrease in jail bookings between 2019 and 2020, the equivalent of 140,000 fewer jail bookings in that time frame. That pattern continued into 2021 for the studied cities.

“While the recent uptick in violence is real,” the report’s authors noted, “this analysis shows that, on average, cities and counties implementing jail population reform efforts successfully reduced jail populations without jeopardizing community safety.”

The second report, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Crime, Arrests, and Jail Populations,” found that “Only 2-3% of people released pretrial were rebooked into jail with a violent crime charge,” and that “People released after jail population reforms were no more likely to return to jail than individuals released before reform began.”

The reports still leave questions unanswered about the underlying cause of the crime spike. Both conclude that available data fails to reveal a connection between pandemic policies and the uptick in violent crime. Still, local courts have already rolled back their pandemic-era policies. Activists like Mike Milton, the founder of the restorative justice organization Freedom Community Center, say that courts and prosecutors in St. Louis are turning back the clock — and throwing more people in jail before trial.

“Over the last couple of months, we've seen an increase in ‘no bond allowed,’ both from the judges, and an increase of recommendations [for no bond] from the Circuit Attorney’s Office as well,” Milton said Friday. “The legal system is just filling up its jails again, which is definitely devastating.”

To hear more from Mike Milton and Beth Huebner, including insights from the reports and a discussion on the ongoing impact of a recent, high-profile crime that maimed a teen volleyball player, listen to the full St. Louis on the Air conversation on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, or Stitcher or by clicking the play button below.

Listen to Mike Milton and Beth Huebner on "St. Louis on the Air"

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 produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."
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