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Dormitory D

Dormitory D in the St. Louis workhouse.

By Matthew McCarthy

If I ran my company the way this country runs its criminal legal system, I’d be fired. Our country locks up more people than any other nation on the planet. It does so at an enormous cost in dollars and livelihood, and all without a good return: Our communities are not safer.

No company could reasonably expect to succeed with such sky-high and wasteful spending. Case in point: Of the whopping $182 billion we spend annually on the prison system, $13.6 billion is spent to incarcerate people who haven’t been found guilty of anything.

It’s hard to imagine a more dysfunctional system — unless, of course, it was designed for these outcomes. It’s not an accident that people of color make up 67 percent of our prison population, yet only 37 percent of the U.S. population. Systemic racism is real — and there are things we can do to change it.

Here in St. Louis more than 90 percent of people incarcerated at the Workhouse have not been tried and found guilty but are held simply because they can’t afford to post bail. While the average St. Louisan has an income of $25,434, the median bond to avoid pretrial incarceration is $25,000. “Innocent until proven guilty” has become “guilty until proven wealthy.”

We cannot afford to keep locking people up based on wealth or race. You can’t build a healthy economy where there is a broken criminal legal system. People spend an average of three to six months in the Workhouse before trial — that removes mothers, fathers and employees from the community and the economy.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can end cash bail. We can divest from ineffective incarceration and invest in rebuilding the communities devastated by mass incarceration. Think of how many social service workers and mental health counselors can be funded by the $16 million that St. Louis spends on the Workhouse each year. How much housing, public transportation and addiction treatment could it fund? These are the kinds of supportive services that build our communities and make them safer.

Our approach to criminal justice needs a major reorganization now. That’s why Ben & Jerry’s is proud to stand with the ArchCity Defenders, Action St. Louis, The Bail Project and Advancement Project National Office in support of their campaign to Close the Workhouse. The Workhouse is a poster child for what is wrong with our criminal legal system, and it’s time for change.

This week, my company is kicking off our Justice Remix’d Scoop Truck Tour to help close the Workhouse. We’ll be traveling through the city with the Close the Workhouse campaign, talking with people about re-envisioning public safety and thriving communities for everyone. Of course, we’ll also serve free scoops of ice cream. That pairing might sound weird, but we’ve found that even the most challenging issues are a little easier to talk about over ice cream. The goal is to have engaged St. Louis citizens urge the Board of Aldermen and Mayor Lyda Krewson to defund the Workhouse before the June 28 budget deadline.

Although my company's contributions to social movements are modest in comparison to what our local partners do, we hope that by leveraging our company’s influence we can empower our fans and encourage other businesses to join us in promoting systemic, progressive change.

I know there’s good cause for hope. Across the country criminal legal reform is being sought by people of all political persuasions. Some polls indicate that more than 90 percent of Americans favor reforming the criminal legal system — this is an idea we can all get behind. In St. Louis, change is both needed and possible. Let’s close the Workhouse to create a more just and safer St. Louis — and set an example for the rest of the country.

Matthew McCarthy is chief executive officer of Ben & Jerry’s.