Across the country, jails are, all too often, used as holding pens for people who can't afford to pay bail. The Workhouse in St. Louis is no exception to this phenomenon. In July of 2017, almost all of the 836 inmates were awaiting trial, with only a handful having actually been convicted. Given that, historically, criminal justice reform has only rarely come from the city's prosecuting attorney, community members have taken matters into their own hands. These local-led efforts are part of a gradual reform movement—one that, on closer inspection, reveals the enduring importance of local organizing not only in St. Louis, but across the entire country.
Similar attempts to organize for criminal justice reform have stretched across the country. This month, Louisiana became the second-most incarcerated state in the country—a drop from its long-held position at the top of the list—due partly to grassroots organizations. Louisianans for Prison Alternatives, the Louisiana Youth Justice Coalition, Operation Restoration, and the Foundation for Louisiana were among the many advocacy groups that sought to reform several facets of the state's criminal justice system. These efforts included reinstating voting rights for formerly incarcerated citizens, using alternative punishment for non-violent crimes, increasing parole eligibility, and changing the punishment for court fine delinquency.
In 2017, these organizations aided in the passage of a package of 10 criminal justice reform bills in the Louisiana state legislature. The bills aimed to reduce the population of incarcerated non-violent offenders, decrease recidivism rates, save taxpayers' money, and re-invest 70 percent of the savings into programs that would benefit both crime victims and justice-involved people. According to a report by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections and the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement, one year after the programs began, the state's total prison population decreased by 7.6 percent, and the number of people imprisoned for non-violent crimes dropped by 20 percent. (In contrast, while the Workhouse currently operates at roughly 70 percent capacity, Missouri is on track to be over its total inmate capacity by 2,351 beds by the end of 2021, according to a 2017 report commissioned by former Governor Eric Greitens.)
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