This was originally posted on Advancing Pretrial Policy & Research.
One primary responsibility of pretrial services programs is to supervise people on pretrial release when required by the court. Court-ordered supervision may include court date reminders, phone or in-person check-ins, and periodic criminal history checks.
Increasingly, innovative pretrial services leaders are adopting supportive services to promote pretrial success. These services are not court-ordered. Rather, they are voluntary and intended to support a person’s unique needs. Because they are not a condition of release, they can’t be violated. In many cases, they are coordinated by a pretrial services program and access available community services and resources.
This is the final story in a three-part series featuring pretrial services leaders who have found success and confronted challenges, no matter their ZIP code.
St. Louis, Missouri
St. Louis, Missouri, ramped up its supportive services last year. There has already been a positive impact on the midwestern city. The jurisdiction’s model is focused on working with service providers who had been doing similar work for years with the pretrial population, though not under the city’s management.
Sarah Phillips, St. Louis’ pretrial services coordinator, is leading the charge. With a $1 million grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, she’s introduced services centered on two unmet needs for the pretrial population: employment and mental health and substance use treatment. Additional services provided include transportation to ensure people make their court dates, assistance preparing résumés, access to clothing closets for job interviews, meetings with career coaches, access to psychiatric services, and help securing housing.
“The people who come here, the reason that they’re here is related to the things that we’re trying to address with these programs, which is unmet needs,” explained Phillips. “That’s what it comes down to; people end up committing crimes because their needs are not met.”
Informing Decision Makers
St. Louis now has three contracted staff members who interview people in jail after a custodial arrest. In 2021, the jail had an average daily population of 656 people. When a person expresses interest in supportive services and chooses to participate, pretrial staff notify the judge and defense attorney prior to a release hearing. Pretrial staff are available during hearings to provide information about the program to the judge or prosecutor. Defense lawyers also point out that the person has elected to participate in voluntary services to support their arguments for less restrictive release conditions.
In addition to other conditions of release, judges may order the person to follow up on the screening and meet with the caseworker once they leave jail. However, failure to engage with the service provider is not used to revoke a person’s bond and send them back to jail. Currently, the programs have a capacity of roughly 90 people.
To track the success of the programs, Phillips keeps data on the outcomes of people who complete them. She also tracks how many people are terminated from the programs, arrested, or fail to appear for their court date.
If our goals really are to improve community safety, then why not try to address individuals’ unmet needs so that we never see the same people here again and so that they have these connections in the community that will last longer than their court case.Sarah Phillips St. Louis’ pretrial services coordinator
Making a Difference
Phillips shared several stories of success. In one case, someone was charged with assault. They were referred to supportive services in May 2021, released from jail in July 2021, and transferred to a new treatment team for long-term services in August 2021. Since their release, they have remained law-abiding and have made all their court appearances.
The significance of the programs goes far beyond improved pretrial outcomes. As one example, a participant showed up at the service provider the day after her release from jail and received a gas card, got items from the clothing closet, and made career coaching and counseling appointments. Recently, 10 people were able to secure low-cost Christmas presents for their families through an “Affordable Christmas” event. Additionally, the mental health program has been able to cover the cost of prescription psychiatric medications for people who were released without any and couldn’t afford them.
To start the programs, Phillips had to get buy-in from system stakeholders such as prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys. She hopes that they’ll continue to support growth and help her secure more funding as they learn more about the effects the programs are having on the people who participate in them.
“If our goals really are to improve community safety, then why not try to address individuals’ unmet needs so that we never see the same people here again and so that they have these connections in the community that will last longer than their court case,” said Phillips. “And hopefully, that will provide them some stability and what they need to live their life and move on from ever interacting with this system again.”