Perspective on the Medium Security Institution

Now that temporary air conditioning has been installed at MSI, I want to reflect on the future of the facility, the events of the last week, and look at the whole picture of who is responsible for people being detained on bond at either of the City's jails.

I am not about to defend the larger criminal justice or mental health systems across Missouri or the country. In fact, the acute inadequacies of those systems directly contribute to the below par conditions at MSI. However, I also want to point out inaccuracies that have been making the rounds in the last week about what leads people to be detained at MSI, because there should be some facts we can agree on before moving towards improving the situation at MSI.

Since I've been on the Board of Aldermen, I have been an advocate for retro-fitting the un-airconditioned parts of the building, as well as funding a variety of accumulated deferred maintenance at the building that has built up over time.  The best chance for finding the money for all of these improvements in recent history was the 2015 bond proposal. I was on the Capital Committee at the time, which spent 2 years reviewing a wide and deep list of City infrastructure needs. St. Louis government is not in good financial shape. Large expenses are hard to fund. and the reality is that A/C has never made the cut since the building was opened in 1966. I wanted A/C for the whole building as part of a bond issue in 2015. Unfortunately voters did not approve the bond, including $30.5 million for corrections, which would have made money available today to make a wide variety of improvements to the building, including A/C and plumbing.

What is true is that once people are at MSI, its the City's (and by City I mean the part of the City that works under the mayor) responsibility to provide an adequate level of care for people. I do not believe we generally reach that level at MSI for men, despite the efforts of an under-staffed correctional department. But here is what's also true: The City has almost no control over how many people are at MSI, or how long they stay there. The length of someone's stay is determined primarily by the Circuit Attorney and judge, but also by the individual charged with the crime themselves, and often the state public defender's office. Every delay or continuance in a case adds length to a pre-trial stay and expense to the city.

Almost no one is in MSI because of a city charge (an ordinance violation). People there have been charged with a state level crime (felonies and misdemeanors) by Kim Gardner's office, and prior to her by Jennifer Joyce's office. While the police department obviously gathers evidence in most criminal cases, the Circuit Attorney ultimately has the discretion to charge or not charge any case. "City Hall" also have no control over what bail is set. The Circuit Attorney's Office requests bail and judges assign bail.

An often repeated statement has been that 98% of people in the city's two jails are pre-trial. This isn't an inaccurate statement. The majority are pretrial. A small number are serving a sentence, and others are there for probation and parole violations. Probation and parole violations are not really pre-trial actions. They are directly related to an existing conviction or guilty plea, and resulting sentence.

About 75 to 80% of people at the two jails are actually pre-trial. Of those who are pre-trial, 97% are charged by the Circuit Attorney's with felonies. Some of these people, as advocates claim, are at MSI because of non-violent offenses like drug possession, larceny, theft, fraud, etc. Others are charged with more serious violent felonies like manslaughter, aggravated assault and gun charges - although people charged with violent crimes like murder and rape are more likely to be confined at the Justice Center downtown.

If you are awaiting trial at either location, you are likely to either be charged with a serious or violent crime, or are poor and unable to afford bail for lesser charges. What's important about this is to recognize what is landing people in jail pre-trial. If you believe pre-trial detention compounds all the likely problems in a non-violent suspects life, and most people do believe that at this point, then how do we avoid pre-trial detention for appropriate cases?

A few things would go a long way to reducing the problem. The number one thing by far is that the public defender's office in Missouri have enough funding to represent people who need a public defender. Missouri, under both democratic and republican governors, and democratic and republican state legislatures, has woefully under funded the office. Its inadequate, it leads to longer waits pre-trial, and at its worst, it violates defendant's constitutional right to adequate representation. The resultant delays caused by an under supply of public defenders increases the population at MSI. The City is not the entity that funds public defenders. The state MUST do better.

The next thing is that the St. Louis judicial system should pilot eliminating cash bail in some cases. But that is also largely not work that happens at "City Hall". City Hall doesn't request bail or determine bail. That work needs to happen between the Circuit Attorney and Judiciary. For some kinds of cases and charges, a system other than cash-bail could be developed.  

Third, efforts to establish charitable funds to pay bail for low-income people facing non-violent charges should continue. The amount required in the most sympathetic cases is often very small. A full time charitable effort could likely reduce the population at MSI by 20% for a modest amount of money. But its important to know that once a person has been charged with a crime and does not pay bail, "the City" generally can't legally release them until they pay bail or the case is resolved. This is a generous region. There is ample space for the charitable community to help people facing non-violent charges, and by doing so improve the living conditions of others facing more serious charges.

Fourth, regardless of what courts, judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys do - the City needs to better fund maintenance at MSI. The City needs to end the "out of sight, out of mind" mentality that has characterized other administration's approach to maintenance.

Contrary to many claims in the last two weeks, the City largely does not want people at MSI if there is an alternative. We have an obligation to hold people facing state charges, but the state does not compensate us the amount it costs to house people awaiting trial. The more people at MSI - the more it costs the City, both from state under payments and in staff required to run the facility. That means there is an alignment in desires between the activist and reform community and "City Hall" to reduce the population a MSI. A smaller population there would make it much easier to improve the housing conditions for the people that are there.

On the other hand, what has also been sadly missing in the recent conversation is any attention to victims. While there are certainly people awaiting trial at MSI that do not pose any particular danger if they were released, there are others that pose a clear danger. Victims of crimes like sexual violence and domestic assault often take great risks to themselves in order to provide evidence of a crimes that allow a prosecution. Victims can live in great fear and real danger pre-trial, especially if an alleged perpetrator is not detained. While as of this writing we don't have an up to date snap shot of all the charges people face at MSI, we should recognize many of those are serious charges, with real victims who live in our community, and whose lives have been damaged by the crimes committed. The criminal justice system can be hard on victims, we can't ignore that while trying to improve the system for those awaiting trial.

Is MSI a good facility? No. Is it a facility that largely continues to exist because the state does a poor job with mental health, Medicaid, public defenders, and substance abuse? Yes. The City, who as a government is not in good financial shape, is picking up the slack for an indifferent state.

Is the City equipped to fix the myriad problems with the criminal justice system in Missouri? No. Are we already trying to reduce the population at MSI? Yes. There is not one solution to this. Improvement will require the cooperation of judges, Circuit Attorney, City Hall, and ideally an end to the indifference the state generally shows us. We have new office holders who are likely more interested than their predecessors in engaging with the issue. The focus should be on each party working on things within their control to improve the situation. The results people want to see - the impact people want to make - will come much faster if people set aside narrow political agendas and personal credit to focus on solutions.