Fox2 News profiled our current efforts to expand Diversion & Deferred Prosecution resources in St. Louis County.

CLAYTON, Mo. – The St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office is taking a new approach towards non-violent offenders who struggle with mental illness or substance abuse. “We can’t incarcerate our way out of substance abuse; incarcerate our way out of mental health. We have to treat it," said St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell.

The goal for diversion is to intercept individuals who might not otherwise have contact with the criminal justice system, but for problems with substance abuse, mental health, poverty, access to services/transportation/employment.

Empirical evidence and data shows that addressing these underlying issues, which are the root cause of criminal behavior, is more likely to reduce recidivism than incarceration.  Thus, offering these services/resources the first time someone gets in trouble reduces the likelihood that they will re-offend in the future.

The following is from a budgetary request submitted January 15th, 2019 to the St. Louis County Council. In this request for additional staff and funding we make the case for Deferred Prosecution & Diversion Programs that can increase public safety, significantly reduce the cost to St. Louis County taxpayers by lowering mass incarceration rates as well as increase the likelihood that individuals in need of substance abuse treatment or mental health treatment receive critical services in a timely manner.

Summary of Deferred Prosecution and Diversion (“DPD”)

Deferred prosecution is a prosecutor-led diversion mechanism which has the potential to reduce criminal justice involvement and incarceration rates while maximizing public safety.  It allows individuals to avoid accruing criminal charges and convictions on their record or to have their original charges dismissed or expunged after they successfully complete the program.  The mission of deferred prosecution diversionary programs is to provide individuals with the opportunity to accept responsibility for their actions, engage in behavioral health treatment and human service programs, reduce the probability of future criminal offending behavior and reduce the costs incurred with the initiation and processing of criminal charges and incarcerating individuals.  It is also to allow individuals committing non-violent crimes to maintain a record which will not prohibit them from obtaining employment and leading productive lives.

Diversion at the pre-trial or prosecution phase- our focus- is designed to reduce incarceration rates in ways that are effective, sustainable and socially just.  It is designed to reduce docket pressure, lower costs, focus prosecution resources on violent crimes that demand more time and attention, and produce better outcomes for individuals and communities.  The goal is to make offenders and communities more productive and safe by connecting individuals to targeted community services as a means to reduce future criminal offending behavior.  By diverting eligible individuals, the PA’s office can reduce docket pressures and save tax dollars on hearings, trials and incarceration for eligible individuals without sacrificing public safety. 

Costs of Incarceration in St. Louis County:

One day of incarceration at the justice center amounts to a cost of $75.00 to the county.  An individual held at the justice center for one year- without any medical, psychological, emergency or other extenuating circumstances- can cost up to $27,375.  While 91% of people arrested in St. Louis County spend at least one day at the justice center, 45% spend between 1-5 days while another 45% spend between 6-160 days in pre-trial confinement at cost of $450-$12,000 to the county.  The $75.00/day does not capture the non-reimbursable cost(s) of medical or psychiatric care incurred by the St. Louis County Health Department and county for individuals housed at the justice center. 

As of December, 2018, pursuant to information provided by justice services, the justice center housed 1033 prisoners, 27% of which- or 278- consist of C, D and E felonies.  104 of these individuals have been housed at the justice center for over 100 days.  That translates to an additional $780,000.00 incurred by the county on housing alone.  That number does not take into account the costs incurred with respect to police man-hours, issuing charges, processing cases, clogging court dockets, trials, appeals, prison, probation and parole.  Nor does it take into account the human toll on victims and defendants as cases needlessly drag on, jobs and homes are lost and families are broken.

If the current number of those housed at the justice center were to be decreased by at least 58 inmates per day (5.2%-5.8% decrease) the costs savings to the jail would pay for the Prosecutor’s staffing increase requests. This decrease is easily attainable. Prosecutors in other jurisdictions across the country who have developed similar reforms as our office, such as Chicago and Philadelphia, have seen a 30%-40% decrease in jail population. If the our jail population at the justice center is decreased accordingly, the savings to the County will be nearly ten times our budget increase request. Moreover, with respect to the cost(s) of medical treatment provided to inmates, the St. Louis County Health Department currently absorbs the cost of medical treatment for the incarcerated, with no reimbursement mechanism from State or Federal dollars. Anytime someone is incarcerated, Medicaid, Medicare and private insurance will not pay for reimbursement. The County is solely responsible for in-house treatment, hospital stays, and ambulance rides. The current MacArthur grant pays for $400k in drug treatment, but it expires in 2020 and we have nothing in place to replace it.  Thus, theoretically, all drug treatment and collateral cost(s) will be passed along to the county. 

We have the opportunity greatly lower the cost(s) referenced above by outsourcing those costs to community partners our office has identified as willing to help. Instead of treating our jail like a de facto hospital, we can get certain non-violent inmates the specialized treatment they need in the community, while saving the county millions of dollars.

Some other relevant statistics are as follows:

·       Cost of ambulance ride and one night in hospital, $1,000 and $1,600, respectively;

·       19% of people in Missouri prisons serve time for drug related offenses (possession/distribution);

·       In 2016 the county sentenced 3077 inmates to prison, including approx. 584 for drug related offenses;

·       Convicted drug offenders receive, on average, 5.7 years for possession/9.4 years for distribution/manufacturing;

·       Each year the estimated 584 county offenders serve in prison costs the State of Missouri over $13 million (584 multiplied by $23k/year);

·       Approximately 2,230 individuals from the county are on probation and parole for drug offenses for period of at least 4 years at a cost of $2,233 annually per person (this does not include electronic monitoring which will raise the cost to over $6,500 annually per person) costing the county taxpayers $4.9 million/year


The DPD Plan Under St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell

Wesley Bell’s administration has at least eleven (11) community partners, completely independent from justice services and/or St. Louis County government, willing to accept offenders free of cost and/or willing to donate substantial amount(s) of money and/or resources to assist the PA’s office with its plan(s) for deferred prosecution and diversion.  For example: normally, to treat opioid abuse, a twelve (12) month treatment program provided by Affinia costs approximately $3,559.95.  However, as a community partner, Affinia alone has agreed to take at least 200 offenders across the treatment spectrum annually- and more as time goes on- pre-charge, pre-plea and free of cost to the County, its residents and/or any offender. Other community partners have agreed to provide employment and housing services free of cost.

With a properly staffed PA’s office that can efficiently prosecute cases and operate a DPD system in conjunction with its community partners, the county and its taxpayers can save millions of dollars annually with respect to housing, case processing and the treatment of individuals that, in the past, did not have the opportunity to receive effective treatment and avoid prosecution.