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A Push To Reduce Jail Populations

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to spend some time on one of the key issues social justice activists have been trying to spotlight in recent years. We're talking about incarceration, but we want to focus on an issue that often doesn't get much attention, which is local jails. Before people go to prison or are even convicted of a crime, they most likely end up in a local jail. And that stay could last two hours or two months, often depending on whether or not a defendant can post bail. Back in 2015, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation launched the Safety and Justice Challenge. The goal of the project was to address racial disparities and what they describe as an overreliance on jails. They recently published findings from the first three years of the program, and we've called two people who are involved with it.

Joining us now are Wesley Bell. He is the prosecuting attorney for St. Louis County, which is one of the areas that was studied in the report, Wesley Bell. Thank you so much for being with us.

WESLEY BELL: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And Laurie Garduque is the director of the Criminal Justice Program at the MacArthur Foundation. And here I want to mention that the foundation is among NPR's financial supporters. Laurie Garduque, welcome to you as well for joining us.

LAURIE GARDUQUE: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So, Laurie Garduque, I'm going to go to you. The MacArthur Foundation released a report in a brief this week covering jail populations in select cities in this program. Before we jump in to the findings, can you just tell us why the foundation chose to focus on jails? Why do they matter? Why do you think it was important?

GARDUQUE: Well, when the MacArthur Foundation launched the Safety and Justice Challenge initiative, most of the attention that was being given to the need for criminal justice reform looked at prisons, the deep end of the system. And yet the front door to the system, as you noted, had largely been overlooked. There are 11 million jail admissions annually. That's 20 times the number of people who go to state prisons. And the large majority of the people who are detained in jail are there on low-level nonviolent crimes.

And so we recognized that jails were a major driver of mass incarceration and had particularly dire consequences for low-income people and communities of color. And so what we looked for in the jurisdictions that were involved in the Safety and Justice Challenge was their willingness to work together to address the problem.

MARTIN: And I was going to ask you about that. Did you see any throughlines or any patterns that worked particularly well in your findings?

GARDUQUE: So most of the attention was being paid to the initial contact with the justice system and those systems where there was an emphasis on money bail. There were alternatives to money bail for people who suffered from mental health and substance use issues. The aim was to deflect them to programs and services in the community. And most importantly, they talked to the communities most impacted by the misuse and overuse of jails.

MARTIN: So, Wesley Bell, it's my understanding that in your jurisdiction, the report found that the average daily jail population for people in pre-trial dropped by 31% from 2006 to 2019. You were elected in 2008, so this was under way before you came into office. But what's your take on this? How do you explain the drop? And what are the factors in your area that you would recommend to other jurisdictions?

BELL: Absolutely. I think, one, I think it starts with, as Laurie pointed out, it has to be a team effort where the stakeholders are on board. And I feel fortunate because I think it's been well documented the reforms that I not only campaigned on, but that we started implementing. But without the team effort, particularly with MacArthur, I feel like we were joining a team that was championship ready, to use a Tom Brady analogy. And then on top of that, we start adding our policies, which are not looking to incarcerate low-level nonviolent felonies.

And so when we make that distinction and we recognize that someone who's charged with drug possession, which is a low-level felony that's not attached to violence or drug dealing, we understand that treatment is more effective and impactful for that individual than jail time, which increases the likelihood that they'll reoffend. And so we focused on expanding our treatment resources, connecting treatment providers. And the evidence is clear when we connect these individuals with these resources, the support systems and support that they need, they're less likely to reoffend. But more importantly, it helps individuals.

MARTIN: But you still have a lot of people who believe strongly that incarceration is the way to go, that that is the key way to address crime - to separate people from the community, whether they've even been convicted of a crime or not. That's kind of the default for a lot of people. So how do you deal with the public opinion aspect of that? Or rather, I should say, how have you dealt with the public opinion aspect of that?

BELL: We ran a lot of our campaigning - and even now in office, we continue with the community engagement unit that we created to educate people on what the facts are, even those who are inclined to fall back on the incarceration, quote-unquote, "law and order" philosophies. When they are faced with the details and the research and what the data shows, they're getting on board. And so the timing was important. I think that the criminal justice reform movement had started to catch on. And instead of continuing the empty rhetoric of, well, we just need to lock them up, what we decided to do is run a campaign that was based on research and data and facts.

And as we saw, by and large, people are buying into it. And I'll even add one more point. As we look at the landscape here in this region, you don't see much pushback with respect to diversion and alternatives to incarceration that you saw a few years ago. And I think it starts with that education. And that's why pieces like you're doing now are so important to continue educating and pushing that narrative.

GARDUQUE: So, Laurie Garduque, the St. Louis area is emblematic of a problem nationwide, which is that there are huge racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system. Your report found that those racial disparities didn't show improvement over a three-year span, despite the fact that there are these jail populations dropping. And I understand that even during the pandemic, when you saw big drops in jail populations, that wasn't evenly distributed across racial and ethnic groups. Why do you think that is?

GARDUQUE: That's correct. We weren't surprised by those findings and found them disheartening. I don't want to minimize how harm was reduced and the better outcomes for so many people of color as a result of the challenge, but the racial disparities have increased, particularly among those individuals who have been charged with more serious offenses who are more likely to be detained.

MARTIN: Do you want to weigh in, Laurie Garduque, on the on the question I asked about how you persuade the public, especially people who don't think they're connected to the criminal justice system or who just have a visceral reaction to the idea that incarcerating people less is a bad thing?

GARDUQUE: As Mr. Bell pointed out, it is important for people to understand and know the facts. So we have worked with our jurisdictions to collect data on an ongoing basis and to create performance metrics and to make those transparent so we can show that the jail population has safely declined. Pre-Pandemic, the jail population dropped by 14%, and there was no increase in violent crime associated with the drop in the jail population.

MARTIN: Mr. Bell, before we let you go, look, a number of cities - I understand that you represent St. Louis County. You're the prosecutor for St. Louis County. But the city itself, like a number of other cities across the country, has experienced a spike in violent crime. It's not really clear why that is, but it is clear that that is occurring in a number of places - not uniformly. It's just not clear why. But that is happening. And I just wonder, does this make your case harder to keep advancing these reformist policies at a time when people are frightened?

BELL: I think that's a valid point and concern. And I think that's why it's even more important to double down on what the data and the research tells us. What we do know is that many of these issues that you're talking about happen much further upstream than the criminal justice system. And we're talking about access to quality education, access to jobs and education. By the time that they get to the criminal justice system, oftentimes it's because there's already been some type of run-in with the law.

And so I think that the policy that we're doing are proactive in the sense that we're trying to catch those low-level offenders, get them the support that they need, because they tend to, through the cycle of incarceration, escalate to the violent crimes when they don't get the support that they need. And that's why I think it's important for us to have an honest conversation to really address the mental health, substance use disorder issues that people need prior to committing a crime. And then we'll start seeing more of the changes that we want to see.

So when we talked about on a micro level that team work with ourselves, the judiciary, the public defenders, defense and MacArthur, well, now we got to look at that on a larger scale and look at our schools and some of the inner-city areas and some of our poorer areas and recognize that some of these kids don't have the same opportunities. And if we start addressing those issues, honestly, we'll start to see even more changes for the good.

MARTIN: That was Wesley Bell. He is the elected prosecutor for St. Louis County. We also heard from Laurie Garduque. She's the director of the criminal justice program at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Thank you both so much for being here. I do hope you'll keep us posted as this project continues.

BELL: Absolutely. Thanks for having us.

GARDUQUE: Likewise. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.