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Workhouse Dormitory D

Dormitory D in the St. Louis Workhouse.

A federal judge has confirmed what has long been obvious: People arrested for nonviolent offenses shouldn’t languish in St. Louis’ city jail awaiting trial merely because they can’t afford bail. The existing system makes a mockery of the presumption of innocence, especially when some inmates are being incarcerated — sometimes for months — simply because they’re too poor to make bail.

The Workhouse, the city’s medium-security jail, came under fire from activists last year for substandard conditions, which city officials say they have since addressed. But a pending suit by ArchCity Defenders and others on behalf of inmates says the problems in St. Louis’ defendant-intake system go far beyond cockroaches and lack of air conditioning.

U.S. District Judge Audrey Fleissig’s ruling Tuesday highlights several factors contributing to the violation of defendants’ rights, much of it coming back to a perfunctory, conveyor-belt-like pretrial process that doesn’t allow proper consideration of individual cases.

Most bond hearings for newly arrested inmates are bureaucratic charades that last literally seconds — not enough time for a judge to take into account ability to pay or whether the arrestee needs to be jailed at all. Judges seldom question the defendants about their circumstances. The defendants themselves have been instructed not to speak. If they want to argue for lower bail, they must wait weeks for another hearing.

Fleissig ordered the city to hold new bail hearings within a week for current inmates. New defendants’ hearings must occur within 48 hours of arrest. In those hearings, judges are to consider ability to pay and other factors.

The ruling specifically allows the continued holding of defendants deemed a danger to the community or a flight risk — which would seem to negate City Counselor Julian Bush’s warning that the order could result in “the release of potentially dangerous individuals.”

In fact, the inadequate attention to bail hearings cuts both ways, not only violating defendants’ civil rights but also endangering the public. Recall the case this year of Samuel Lee Scott, arrested on domestic-abuse charges and put under an order of protection. Despite his demonstrated threat, he was granted an inappropriately low bail. After The Bail Project paid for his release, he went home and allegedly killed his wife.

If a lack of judges or other resources is the problem, then the city must step up and find the funding. At least some savings would be realized by ceasing the unnecessary pretrial incarceration of non-violent offenders. It would also reduce the potential for overcrowding, which previously was a key issue cited by critics.

But the ultimate argument for bail reform is that poverty isn’t supposed to be a jailable offense. Instead of grumbling about fighting or delaying the judge’s order, city officials should focus on reforms to make it work.