By Lori Dresner, News Editor

“Why are jails so important?” Dr. Beth Huebner, professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri—St. Louis (UMSL), asked about 15 students and other audience members at the sixth and final What’s Current Wednesday of the year. High incarceration rates in St. Louis County and the steps being taken to address them were the topics at hand on April 6 at 2 p.m. in Century Room C.

Huebner spearheaded the discussion and explained why overcrowding in St. Louis County jails is such a serious problem, the issues that result from over incarceration, and what is being done to try to reform these issues.

She first explained how the MacArthur Foundation’s MacArthur Grant of $150,000 that St. Louis County received last May has given UMSL criminology and criminal justice graduate students the chance to research the incarceration problems in St. Louis County. The grant allowed St. Louis County and UMSL to jointly research and plan for a more effective local justice system.

St. Louis County was one of 20 out of 200 jurisdictions to receive the grant, and they could receive two to four million more dollars if they are selected as one of the 10 jurisdictions to receive more funding this week. This second round of funding would assist them in implementing their proposed plans for reform.

Huebner cited some statistics to demonstrate the issue of high incarceration rates. Offenders stay in jail for four months on average in St. Louis County. The average population in St. Louis County jail is 1,229, which leaves room for just three people. However, this number can not only fluctuate from day to day, but in minutes or seconds, such as when a large number of people are arrested after a protest or crime spree.

“The goal of the MacArthur Foundation Grant then was to look at these jail incarceration numbers,” said Huebner. “And something to think about, a theme they have given us throughout this grant is to look at the difference between ‘Who are we afraid of and who are we mad at?’”

She elaborated further by explaining that some offenders, such as those involved in gun crimes or gangs, are incarcerated because they are a threat to others or themselves whereas others, like drug abusers or prostitutes, may be jailed based on the state’s stance toward their actions. The MacArthur Grant has allowed researchers to use risk assessment to determine who needs to stay in jail and who does not.

One-third of offenders who are in St. Louis County jail are there on a probation violation. Huebner said researchers conducted case-by-case analyses to determine who was there for a probation violation and found that most of them have committed a technical violation, something that is not a criminal offense but is forbidden by a judge. Many of the probation violators had used drugs once or twice and out of fear, had failed to check in.

“So we thought, ‘Are these the people that are best to be in jail?’” Huebner said. “Because then they’re going to detox in jail, they’re going to lose any sort of job they had, and continue this kind of vicious circle.”

A further issue Huebner cited was the amount of time it takes the incarcerated to receive a hearing. The average time an individual spends waiting in jail for a hearing is 99 days, and that number jumps to 111 days if the individual is African American. This means that a person could be innocent and still spend months incarcerated.

Women in jail have been another challenge. There are less women than men in jails and prisons anywhere in the United States and the world. However, Huebner explained that much more overcrowding occurs for women due to there being less space for them in jails. With the MacArthur Grant, Huebner said she hopes that they will have the opportunity to do trauma-informed interventions for women. Furthermore, Huebner said that in many fields, including the criminal justice and medical field, it is assumed that a treatment that works for men must work for women when in reality there needs to be gender responsive programming.

Despite the challenges, Huebner said that there are steps being taken to make changes within the system. One reform currently in the works is changing the waiting time for a hearing from 99 days to under a week. This is being achieved through a new program similar to pretrial release that fast tracks offenders through the system, and allows them to either have the judge see them right away and decide on their probation or stay in the community until the judge is ready.

Around seven percent of people in St. Louis County jail are there for failure to pay child support. A new program as an alternative to incarceration enrolls 50 people at a time who have violated probation for not paying child support. The program allows them to be out of jail with an electronic ankle bracelet or monitor, but they are on modified house arrest, meaning that they can only leave the house for work. Those who participate in the program must either be working or preparing to work. About 200 individuals have completed the program, there has been an 86 percent rate, and in two years $200,000 has been given back to families in child support.

“So it’s not only about getting out, not being in jail, but it’s also about making this family relationship as well,” said Huebner.

Finally, Huebner said that there are steps being taken to create procedural justice, which is the idea of giving as much information to people as possible, keeping them involved, and making the criminal justice system fair and accessible. An example of this includes new training for judges to help them better respond to citizens in court.

“Basically, if you explain to people what’s happening to them, they are much more likely to comply,” Huebner said. “It’s this whole idea of people will accept criminal justice sanctions if you explain to them why they’re going to happen, if they think it’s just.”

In addition to being a professor, Huebner is the Graduate Coordinator in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. She is currently researching prisoner reentry, criminal justice decision making, and public policy.

Beth Huebner speaking at WCW Courtesy of Michael Plumb
Beth Huebner speaking at WCW
Courtesy of Michael Plumb
Detail of the sequence of Missouri’s criminal justice system Courtesy of Michael Plumb
Detail of the sequence of Missouri’s criminal justice system
Courtesy of Michael Plumb