Just this past July, Jane Doe’s file came up for review for participation in St. Louis County’s Safety and Justice Challenge — a nationwide effort funded by the MacArthur Foundation to reduce jail populations and create more fair and effective justice systems. (The individual’s name was redacted for privacy reasons.) Jane — a mother of two who was struggling with mental illness and substance abuse — was on probation for forgery when she absconded from Missouri State Probation and Parole, violating her residency and leaving her outstanding restitution unpaid.

Prior to St. Louis County’s participation in the program, Jane would have been one of many nonviolent individuals sitting in the St. Louis County jail for violating her probation conditions. In December 2015, the facility housed 1,229 individuals, just barely below its capacity, and many were there solely because they could not pay bond. Individuals like Jane spent as many as 99 days in jail waiting for probation violation hearings, typically for nonviolent, technical violations.

Instead, the program recommended Jane participate in weekly therapy sessions, obtain secure housing, and attend a work program for job readiness so she could complete her restitution payments. Within a month, Jane was living in her own apartment, attending her therapy sessions regularly and re-engaging with her children and family. By October, she had made her final restitution payment and completed her probation.

Jane is one of hundreds being diverted from St. Louis County jail through the county’s participation in the Safety and Justice Challenge. In April 2016, the MacArthur Foundation awarded St. Louis County and the University of Missouri-St. Louis a $2.25 million grant to reduce the county jail population by at least 15 percent over a two-year period. The county is one of 11 jurisdictions nationwide to receive the grant.

As part of a cooperative initiative including multiple partners and co-led by researcher and criminology Professor Beth Huebner at UMSL, the county is putting its $2.25 million toward programs that allow low-risk individuals awaiting either a trial or a probation violation hearing to receive mental health and other services at home instead of at the county jail. The goal is to reduce the St. Louis County jail population by providing services and programs that help individuals break the cycle of behavior causing them to repeatedly come in contact with the court system. Most of the grant money supports programs that encourage positive lifestyle changes upon release, including mental health and drug treatment programs.

These types of programs find support in social scientific research indicating that the longer low-risk individuals are jailed, the more likely they will be to commit future crimes. For instance, an Arnold Foundation study found that when low-risk defendants are held for approximately three days (typically because they can’t post bond), their recidivism rate increases to 17 percent over that of low-risk defendants held for less than 24 hours. This increase is compounded for individuals who, like Jane, simply need to get their psychiatric issues under control, not spend more days in jail where access to medical care is limited.

Contrary to reports claiming the program fell short of its goal at the end of the first year, the program has made progress: The jail’s population has declined substantially and the number of days defendants spend in jail waiting for a trial or hearing has dropped significantly.

The county is one of many jurisdictions recognizing the importance of funding mental health and drug treatment as an alternative to pretrial detention. Research continues to show that providing low-risk, nonviolent offenders with the treatment they need reduces both crime and recidivism rates. A new District of Columbia mental health diversion program, for example, saw that participating juvenile defendants (called respondents) who were enrolled in the program were 26 percent less likely to be re-arrested, as compared to those in regular court.

An investment in this kind of treatment provides individuals like Jane with the opportunity to re-engage with their communities and acquire employment and housing, thus drastically reducing their chances of recidivism.

The program’s success does not come without challenges. At the macro level, the sharp increase in opioid use throughout the county has created barriers to reform. Moreover, while the amount of time individuals spend waiting in jail for a hearing decreased, the increase in the number of individuals returning to jail for failure to appear for court has raised concerns. Professor Huebner plans to work with these individuals to eliminate barriers to getting to court. She hopes efforts such as mitigating transportation costs and allowing flexibility with work and child care schedules will increase appearance rates.

Thanks to these and other efforts, the team is confident the program will meet its goal of at least a 15 percent jail population reduction in 2018.


*Alyse Ullery cowrote this piece.