St. Louis Shows Promise for Bail Reform

Published by: The St. Louis American

This week, we reported on a diabetic inmate in the St. Louis City Justice Center who had his gangrene-infected toe amputated at the end of November after what he described as medical neglect. He is in jail awaiting trial for robbery only because he cannot post a $40,000 cash-only bond. This begs the question: Is St. Louis getting the bail reform it badly needs?

The answer, surprisingly, is yes.

Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner has brought in the nonprofit research group Vera Institute of Justice to guide her office in creating various bail reform initiatives. In October, Mayor Lyda Krewson brought in two fellows from the national nonprofit FUSE to work on developing alternatives to cash bail and other criminal justice initiatives. It appears that Krewson, Gardner and the 22nd Circuit Court are all in agreement that keeping people out of jail pre-trial is being smart on crime.

Gardner has launched a diversion program, particularly for drug offenders, to get them services instead of probation or jail time. She also has started evaluating low-level felony cases, where there is no threat to public safety, to see if the accused could be issued a summons instead of an arrest warrant.

“Locking everyone up and even putting them on probation is not right,” Gardner said. “The number one reason of going to prison in this jurisdiction is probation violations. So why not try something different?”

However, Gardner said she has met a road block – the judges. When she recommends a summons, she said, most of the time judges tell her “no” and issue an arrest warrant with a bail amount.

Wilford Pinkney, the FUSE fellow who is working on bail reform, said that the judges seem receptive to change, but the conversation has to happen throughout the system – and not just in one office. He is trying to educate all parties about pre-trial alternatives. Pinkney plans to help the city develop a risk-assessment tool that can be used in bail determinations.

Asked if the judges fear getting rid of bond amounts in case the accused commit crimes while at liberty, he said that’s a common fear, not just in the courts but in the community– and it’s unfounded.

“Research has shown that bonds don’t stop that from happening, and we need to move away from that thinking,” Pinkney said. “If you set high bonds and they lose their jobs and they lose their families, then you are creating conditions by which they will re-offend.”

Pinkney further said that it costs about one-third of the amount of one day in jail to get people services they need – and they are then less likely to commit crimes. And, regardless, the accused will be tried on their charges. “This is not a soft-on-crime approach,” Pinkney said. “They still have to stand and will be held accountable.”

The FUSE fellows will be in St. Louis only one year. Gardner and Krewson already are half-way through their first terms and likely will face primary challengers in two years. Criminal justice in St. Louis remains a major cause of local concern, if not a national disgrace. We need everyone at the same table and real change to show for it – now.