Front End Criminal Justice Reform: Close the Workhouse Jail!

May 13, 2019

A sky view of the city

Ready for some news that might be hard to believe? St. Louis spends $16 million a year to lock up people who haven’t been convicted of anything. (If you’re shocked by that price tag, then brace yourself: nationally we spend $13.6 billion!) St. Louis’ infamous Workhouse jail has become a symbol of the broader problem with money bail in this country: 90% of the people held there are legally innocent. The only reason they aren’t home with their families? They can’t afford to pay bail.

It shouldn’t be that way—and it doesn’t have to be. Let’s change the system, and let’s start in St. Louis. Join us and our partner, Advancement Project National Office, and demand that St. Louis close the Workhouse today. We need to stop spending millions of dollars on jails, and invest in people and communities instead.


Liberty and Justice for… Some

“Innocent until proven guilty” isn’t just a catchy saying sometimes heard on TV crime dramas—it’s actually one of the bedrock principles of our justice system. Or it used to be. These days it’s more like “guilty until proven wealthy.”

Here, and in most countries with a justice system that claims to value justice, being arrested doesn’t mean you’re guilty (that’s what courts and judges and juries, etc., are meant to decide). If you’re presumed innocent, then you shouldn’t be punished as if you’re guilty, right?

Well, at this very moment, all across America, hundreds of thousands of people are locked up even though they’ve been convicted of exactly nothing. Their “crime” is only this: they can’t afford bail.

This is a serious problem, with serious consequences for people (and their families) trapped by this broken system. At the Workhouse, innocent people spend an average of 291 days behind bars. Imagine spending almost 10 months locked in a cell without ever being convicted of a crime. What would that do to your family? Would you still have a job when you finally got out? Would you still have an apartment or house to return to?


Close the Workhouse

All that is bad enough. But it gets worse: conditions at the Workhouse have been described as “unspeakably hellish,” with complaints going back more than 30 years. We’re talking about mold, rats, insects, extreme heat, and guards who set up “gladiator style” fights between those being held there.

The Workhouse is a “hopeless place.” And the criminal justice system in St. Louis is clearly broken. In fact, it’s not just broken, it’s also racist. Although Black people make up 47% of the St. Louis population, they represent 90% of the Workhouse population.

“Innocent until proven guilty” sure doesn’t seem to apply here. It’s almost as if St. Louis believes you deserve to be in jail… unless you’re wealthy and white. Which is why Advancement Project has been working for years with local groups and residents (including many who were once locked up at the Workhouse) who want to shut the Workhouse down.


How to Help

Despite the awful conditions at the Workhouse, and despite the fact that the Workhouse population is already declining, there are still a few top St. Louis politicians who want to keep it open. We don’t think that makes sense. We think that poverty is not a crime. We think that people awaiting trial should be home with their families—truly innocent until proven guilty.

We also think that the $16 million St. Louis is spending every year to lock up people who haven’t been convicted of anything should be invested it in communities instead. If we put money into addressing things like economic insecurity, mental illness, and substance-use disorders, then we’ll be able to keep a lot of people from ever being arrested in the first place.

We stand with Advancement Project and a growing number of local activists and leaders who support closing the Workhouse and investing in people and communities. Ready to transform the criminal justice system? Ready to change lives and change the country? Then let’s close the Workhouse!