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Protest calls for closing of Workhouse jail

Madison Jones, 5, holds a sign in front of a crowd of people gathered for a protest on Thursday outside St. Louis City Hall where organizers called for closing the Workhouse.

Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

A protest in front of City Hall Thursday focused on the need for greater investment in troubled St. Louis neighborhoods along with closure of the Medium Security Institution, the jail otherwise known as the Workhouse. The protesters, along with like-minded elected leaders, seem to think that closing the jail is the solution to the gun violence and social upheaval afflicting St. Louis.

Closing the Workhouse would create more problems than it could possibly solve. Political leaders who mislead the public with simplistic solutions and false linkages — such as that recent gun violence directly resulted from the Workhouse staying open — do a serious disservice to the cause of keeping St. Louisans safe.

The root causes of crime in St. Louis are complex and multi-dimensional. True, children in single-parent homes because one parent is in prison are far more likely to grow up in unstable environments that feed the cycle of poverty and crime. But closing the Workhouse and potentially releasing people suspected of serious crimes is no way to break that cycle. In fact, it’s a surefire way to increase instability by putting extremely dangerous people back on the very streets they’ve already terrorized.

Nevertheless, Comptroller Darlene Green persists, writing that closing the Workhouse “is the right thing to do” if only Mayor Lyda Krewson focused on it. To advance their case, detractors of the Workhouse and City Justice Center, which together house more than 950 inmates, are peddling a false narrative that Krewson is using them to generate income for the city. That’s nonsense. The city collects roughly $75 a day for federal inmates housed in its jail facilities. Krewson says the city spends about $90 a day per inmate, making it a net money loser.

If the argument is that federal suspects belong in federal facilities, that also is highly problematic. By housing them locally, they remain in close proximity to their family members. Federal facilities are located dozens or even hundreds of miles away, depriving family members and defense attorneys of the chance to visit regularly.

There’s a more fundamental reason why those federal inmates need to be in the local jail system. Rampant urban gun crime coincides with ever-loosening state gun laws that have sharply reduced prosecutors’ options to compile strong cases. To ensure dangerous felons don’t walk, federal prosecutors are stepping in to keep them behind bars. That’s a good and necessary thing.

A perfect example is Malik Ross, who police detective John Anderson says confessed to shooting and killing 7-year-old Xavier Usanga on Aug. 12. Missouri’s gun-possession and self-defense laws, passed to please the National Rifle Association, also hinder Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s efforts to prosecute Ross, she says. Federal authorities stepped in with charges to keep him behind bars. It would be insane to argue that St. Louisans would be safer if people like Ross were walking free.