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Report on mass incarceration underlines need for reform

ST. LOUIS – A new report about mass incarceration of blacks in the U.S., and Missouri in particular, supports the need for the kind of criminal justice reform St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner is instituting. 

“You can’t arrest your way out of crime,” Gardner has said continually since she was elected as the city’s top prosecutor.

She shares that mindset with other fellow black female prosecutors around the country. Six of them visited St. Louis last week to gavel solidarity in the fight for criminal justice reform, including decarceration and equal accountability under the law. 

Today, nearly one out of every 100 people in the U.S. is in a jail or prison, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

In Missouri, approximately 52,000 people, or 859 per 100,000, are incarcerated, compared with the 698 per 100,000 average in the U.S.  

State prisons here hold about 32,000 adults; local jails, 11,000; federal prisons, 6,700. Juvenile facilities hold 950 youths on a voluntary basis; 650 youths are involuntarily committed. 

The rate of imprisonment has steadily risen over the last 40 years.  

In 2010, when 12 percent of all Missouri residents were incarcerated in prisons or jails, 39 percent of them were black. That means nearly 2,400 blacks per 100,000 were imprisoned at that time. 

The high-rate trend in imprisonment continued to grow for blacks since that time by 27 percent, even as the rate for their white counterparts dropped by 24 percent.  

Between 1978 and 2015, the rate of imprisoned blacks in the U.S. has steadily risen, increasing by 141 percent. 

In 2015, blacks were incarcerated at 4.6 times the rate of white people, increasing by 64 percent since 1990, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.  

In a national context, the VIS argues that discriminatory criminal justice policies and practices at all of stages of the justice process have unjustifiably disadvantaged black people, including through disparity in the enforcement of seemingly race-neutral laws. 

“Black baby boys born in this country today have a one in three chance of being incarcerated compared to one in 17 for white babies,” said Jamila Hodge, director of the VIJ’s Reshaping Prosecution Program, which has been collaborating with Gardner’s office for about two years. 

Studies have found that black people are more likely to be stopped by the police, detained pretrial, charged with more serious crimes, and sentenced more harshly than white people – even when controlling for things such as offense severity.

Blacks are also more likely to be shot and killed, even for offenses such as petty theft. 

Of those who wind up in pretrial detention, the largest percentage is black. Along with money bail, pretrial detention policies keep legally innocent people behind bars before trial and increase the likelihood that they will plead guilty, according to the PPI. 

In 2015, the city of St. Louis topped 115 Missouri counties for the annual count of those held in jails pretrial, at 15,100 people. St. Louis city and county together totaled nearly 26,000. Those in the annual count that same year for prison pretrial in St. Louis was 1,384; the county had nearly 2,700. 

In the city, the Medium Security Institution, commonly called the Workhouse, houses detainees in a wealth-based pretrial and bail money release system that many of its predominately poor black populace can’t successfully navigate.  

The Workhouse contains eight times more black detainees than white, although only 47 percent of the city’s population is black. 

More than 90 percent of its detainees are pretrial, which means they are in jail despite the fact that they have not been found guilty.

The Workhouse has been the target of the Close the Workhouse campaign, a group fighting mass incarceration by working to free people from the jail and to close it. 

They contend that the jail is unsafe, unhealthy and inhumane. 

“I have over two decades of experience dealing with the Workhouse,” said Callion Barnes, a member of the Close the Workhouse campaign, “and from the beginning to the end, the conditions were the same.

“The conditions were very horrific: rodents, bugs, smell of black mold, not enough hot water, no air in the summer, no heat in the winter, and poor medical attention.”

Close the Workhouse is made up of three organizational partners – Action St. Louis, ArchCity Defenders, and Bail Project St. Louis – working in collaboration.  

In 2017, ArchCity Defenders filed a federal class-action lawsuit claiming inhumane conditions and inadequate medical care. The case is still pending. 

In the past years, seven deaths have been reported in the Workhouse, according to the group.  

The coalition says that thousands of people, the vast majority of whom are black men, have been forced to survive the conditions Barnes  described – including rodent and insect infestations, black mold, extreme temperatures, and violence – while awaiting a court date.

Partly because of efforts by the coalition, the Workhouse currently has only 239 detainees, about 20 percent of the capacity it was built to hold. The group believes those detainees could and should be rehoused. 

The Close the Workhouse coalition and other proponents of closing the jail held a press conference last week at City Hall, announcing a new closure plan and a supporting aldermanic resolution. 

Sponsored by Ninth Ward Alderman Dan Guenther, the resolution calls for the Board of Estimate and Apportionment to withhold funding for the Workhouse.

Aldermanic co-sponsors are: Cara Spencer, 20th Ward; Jesse Todd, 18th Ward; Megan Green, 15th Ward; Annie Rice, Eighth Ward; Heather Navarro, 28th Ward; Christine Ingrassia, Sixth Ward; and Brandon Bosley, Third Ward.

However, Lewis Reed, president of the Board of Aldermen, noted that because of the city charter, the budget would still become law without aldermen’s voting for it. Reed is one member of the E&A, along with the Mayor Lyda Krewson and Comptroller Darlene Green. Of the three, Green is favor of the closure. 

The Close the Workhouse campaigners believe that the money being spent for it, $16 million per year, should go instead to social services such as job training and mental health care. 

“We have arrived at this moment because the status quo continues to harm the people of this city and this region,” said Blake Strode, Executive Director of ArchCity Defenders. “Not just the most marginalized populations hit hardest by policies that criminalize and cage them, but all those who understand that the real answer to crime is investment in communities that are safe, healthy, and fully supported.”

Continuing, he said, “The city’s attempts to contain the problem with police and jails has been an utter failure. This new plan and the support behind it shows that there is an appetite for a new, people-centered approach.”

The coalition has also likened mass incarceration to slavery. One of their protest signs re-illustrated the American flag with dollar signs replacing the stars and the flag stripes extend to the striped jail uniform of a black man. 

Veteran rap group Public Enemy has long contended that mass incarceration is the new slavery, quickly and phonetically blurring in comparison the words [slave] overseer and [police] officer

In 2018, Gardner said she would no longer take cases from an “exclusion” list of police officers regarding concerns of integrity. 

“We have to find a way to right things that were done in the past that have had a disparate impact on so many people in our community,” said District Attorney Diana Becton of Contra Costa County, Calif., who was in town last week in support of Gardner.

Becton explained, “Convictions can have a very significant effect on an individual’s life … so it’s really important for us as prosecutors that we continue find innovative ways to reform and strengthen the criminal justice system.”

Becton, known for overturning more than 3,000 old convictions, is one of 15 black elected lead attorneys in the country. They represent only one percent of elected prosecutors. The overwhelming majority, 95 percent, are white. Of those, 79 percent are men. 

Boston State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who also came to St. Louis in support of Gardner, said, “We have keepers of the status quo who don’t want to give that power up that brought us mass incarceration and the criminalization of poor black and brown people.”

After her visit here last week, Mosby, who brought charges against police officers in the death of a black suspect who was refused medical care, received a racist voicemail. 

Mosby said that she would not back down and that prosecutors must not be afraid to do the right thing. 

“It’s an awesome amount of power and discretion, especially when you look at the disproportionate impact the criminal justice system has had on communities of color,” Mosby said. She added that when facing alarming data, reform-minded prosecutors should use their discretion “to not be complicit.” 

Bill Beene

bill.beene@thenorthsider.com Bill Beene was born and raised in north St. Louis. He has been a journalist for 12 years. He enjoys cooking and roller skating. He lives in the historic Ville neighborhood.

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