The criminal justice system should be designed to keep people out of jail.
Missouri’s is designed to keep people in it.
A functioning criminal justice system has the fewest victims and the fewest number of people in prison, while still protecting everyone’s civil rights and liberties.
Missouri, however, has the eighth-highest incarceration rate in the nation, the fastest growing female prison population in the nation, and spends $725,165,192 each year on corrections.
Missouri is on a fiscally unsustainable path. The state keeps 50,000 Missourians behind bars. If we don’t make change in the criminal justice system soon, we will have to spend a half-billion dollars to build two new prisons in the next two years.
We talked with Michael Barrett, director of the Missouri State Public Defender System, about the criminal justice crisis in Missouri.
“We have an artificially inflated prison population, with high violent crime rates, and the people who make up the prison population are 50 percent non-violent,” Barrett said. “Something’s not right there.”
Every year, the Missouri Attorney General compiles a report of vehicle stops by law enforcement. In 2017, the rate of African Americans pulled over and searched was 85 percent higher than whites, up from 64 percent in 2012.
“That report is put on shelf, right next to the Department of Justice juvenile report that says we systematically deny children of their constitutional rights,” Barrett said. “No one knows the data. No one holds them accountable.”
When people are pulled over and ticketed, then sent to court or arrested, the never-ending cycle of incarceration begins.
That’s why many like Barrett believe we need smart justice.
“We have to have a goal for public safety and criminal justice,” he said. “There’s finite dollars, and you’ve got to squeeze as much public safety out of every single dollar you have, without jeopardizing anyone’s civil liberties or constitutional rights.”
The ACLU has also launched a nationwide campaign to reform our justice system. Extreme sentencing laws and practices are keeping people in prisons for far longer than ever before.
More people are in prison for more years than at any point in U.S. history.
A smarter kind of justice means reducing both the number of people entering jails and prisons and the extreme laws and policies that drive extraordinarily long prison terms. That’s why we need sentencing reform.
“If you look at the jail population report of any county in the state, it will be full,” Barrett said. “But it will not be full of people who have been convicted of crimes. It will be filled with people who have never been convicted of anything, but are waiting for their case to get resolved in court.”
In 2015, roughly 700,000 people were locked up in local jails and a majority of them had not been convicted of a crime. The reason is because after an arrest—wrongful or not—a person’s ability to leave jail and fight the charges from home depends on money, on the requirement to pay cash bail.
“The idea is that if the court has something of value that belongs to you, you’ll come back,” he said. “But that is not how bond is used in our state.”
Bail bonds are written promises signed by defendants to ensure that they will appear in court at the scheduled time and date. The bail amount to be paid by the defendant is set by the court.
Bond schedules, or how a certain crime or offense determines the amount of bail, are used by judges to unjustly assign bail according to the charge.
“That violates the U.S. Constitution,” Barrett said. “Bond is tied to the individual, if the individual is a threat to public safety or a flight risk. That’s what the bond should be, not the charge.”
The bond system has morphed from a promise that people return to court into widespread wealth-based incarceration, which is why we’re also working on bail reform.
While judges have the discretion of bonds and cash bails, prosecutors have just as much influence over criminal justice.
“Prosecutors make the greatest impact on criminal justice policy,” Barrett said.
We support prosecutorial reform because these mostly elected officials work towards convictions, not justice. We’re challenging prosecutorial abuse in the courts and legislatures and through voter education. The ACLU of Missouri has launched a website, called PickYourPA.org, where you can find information about your local prosecutor’s positions on criminal justice reform.
In 2015, we engaged with voters in Cole County during the election for their prosecuting attorney. Through speaking with 1,000 voters and texting 4,000 voters, we discovered that a majority of them wanted a prosecuting attorney who would stand up for smart justice reforms.
In the 2018 St. Louis County prosecuting attorney primary race, we invested resources into a county-wide effort to educate voters about the candidates’ positions on various civil rights issues through radio ads, phone calls, digital ads and door-to-door canvassing in a first-of-its kind effort that reached thousands of voters. When St. Louis County voters elected challenger Wesley Bell, they made it clear that the criminal justice system must change.
Each year, 650,000 men and women nationwide return from prison to their communities. Yet the challenges do not end once they are not behind bars. These folks face nearly 50,000 federal, state and local legal restrictions that make it difficult to reintegrate
back into society—beginning with their inability to find employment.
“When someone is able to get a job, that is the No. 1 thing in reducing the likelihood that they are going to recidivate,” Barrett said. “But it’s the criminal conviction that keeps them from getting the job.”
That’s why we need more resources for people to have their criminal record expunged. An expungement is a court-ordered process in which a person’s criminal record is “sealed,” or erased. Expungement provides for people who committed a crime over 20 years ago, people who are afraid to go back into court, people with families, people who just want their dignity back. Missouri Senate Bill 588, passed in 2016, allows certain people to apply for expungement and have some of their prior convictions erased in the hope of obtaining a job and progress into an active member of society.
The confusion and obstacles around expungement, however, discourage many applicants, so the education is necessary for these policies.
Missouri’s criminal justice system is broken, doesn’t protect people and costs Missourians billions of dollars per year. For each $1 spent on corrections, incarceration generates an additional $10 in social costs—often thrust on families, children and community members who have committed no crime.
It’s time to reform our state’s criminal justice. It’s time for smart justice.