New Program Shortens County Jail Stays for Probation Violators

The average length of jail stays for nonviolent probation violators have shortened by over a month

click to enlarge The St. Louis County Jail in Clayton. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
The St. Louis County Jail in Clayton.

The length of stay for detainees held at the St. Louis County Jail for probation violations has decreased substantially since the implementation of a new program at the jail, researchers at the University of Missouri–St. Louis say. 

A new report commissioned by the MacArthur Foundation found average lengths of stay for offenders who violated their probation decreased from 65 days to 28 days after the county’s Expedited Probation Program was implemented in 2017 to decrease the amount of probation violators in jail.

While probation violations represent just a small percentage of St. Louis County’s total jail population, those jailed for probation violations tend to stay in jail substantially longer than other detainees, the study found.

Most individuals jailed for violating their probation are detained for nonviolent offenses, such as failing to maintain employment or meeting with their probation officers, says Beth Huebner, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at UMSL. 

Yet they still tend to stay in jail substantially longer than other detainees, Huebner adds. Most were simply waiting on the legal system to move.

“Before, people were coming into jail and waiting a long time just to have their case heard,” Heubner says.

Missouri’s Division of Probation and Parole assigned two probation officers to the St. Louis County Jail who worked with judges to negotiate release — instead of detainees who presented no risk to the community waiting for a hearing in the jail. 

Probation officers in the jail also started working with jail case managers to identify detainees who would’ve been better served with mental health or substance abuse. A probation officer met with these individuals to send them directly to services outside of the jail if they presented no risk to the community.

“We wanted to get rid of any barriers to being released in the community and doing well,” she says. 

The Expedited Probation Program did not reduce readmissions. People on probation who participated in EPP were actually more likely to be readmitted to jail, the study found — possibly because of greater surveillance and additional requirements placed on them, according to the study. 

Other factors could help play a role in reducing readmissions, Huebner says. And some practices have already been utilized. 

The Missouri Department of Corrections made significant organizational changes during the pandemic. Probation officers started holding virtual meetings with offenders instead of requiring them to meet them in person. In the early months of the pandemic, the department provided staff with state-issued cell phones and laptops.

“As difficult as COVID was, many people on probation said they felt like they had better interactions with their probation officers during COVID because they could Zoom or text them,” Huebner says. 

UMSL’s study noted that the primary reason individuals were returned to jail was because they absconded, meaning they failed to check-in with their probation officers. 

Some people on probation “distrusted” the probation system, and that’s why they absconded, according to the study. Others faced barriers unique to St. Louis, such as transportation, Huebner says. 

“St. Louis doesn’t have the best transit system,” she says. “A lot of people don’t live by the best jobs, and it gets expensive when they have to commute a long way.”

Probation and parole officers are starting to understand barriers like these even more as relationships between officers and offenders deepen, Huebner says, and will explain them to judges. 

“Kind of a silver lining to these changes we had to make during COVID is that probation seems to have improved,” Huebner says.

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Monica Obradovic

Monica Obradovic is a staff writer for the Riverfront Times.
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