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County council member stresses urgent funding need for criminal justice system

While a majority of the St. Louis County Council wants to see how the first wave of federal money was spent before the county spends any of its new award, one member is urging that the new federal dollars be used quickly to address mounting issues in the local criminal justice system.

“With a severe staffing shortage, an increase of residents accused of violent offenses and a request on our agenda for a pay raise for many jail employees, it felt like an important time for another visit,” council member Lisa Clancy (D-District 3) said describing the current situation at the Buzz Westfall Justice Center.

The Buzz Westfall Justice Center in Clayton, home to the county jail (Photo: Jeffrey Bricker)

Clancy is pressing her council colleagues to approve funding for a $2 per hour raise for most employees at the county jail. Clancy, along with fellow council member Kelli Dunaway (D-District 2), recently toured the facility and met with staff. She said there is a real strain on Justice Services employees due to overcrowding and an increase in the number of violent offenders among the jail population. But the biggest strain currently on personnel Clancy said, based on what saw and heard, is a severe staff shortage.

Via Twitter after her visit, Clancy said, “I spoke to employees who are working 20-50 hours of overtime a week and are physically and emotionally exhausted. I know some of my colleagues have concern (sic) about long term affordability of pay increase (sic), but is overtime sustainable?? Our workers are lowest paid in region.”

St. Louis County was recently awarded $193 million through the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). However, decisions on the allocation of those funds have been held up by council leadership. Speaking with the media after the meeting, Clancy expressed some frustration over the council’s lack of action. 

“I’m not sure we’re seeing a lot of urgency from the council right now as a body when it comes to talking earnestly about how to best spend our federal funds,” Clancy said.

While Clancy has put forth a bill providing the $2 per hour raise, public debate and discussion among members of the council has been nonexistent. However, there was a notable voice of dissent and concern during the public forum segment of the June 8 meeting.

Reverend Phillip Duvall, who is a frequent speaker at council meetings and a longtime local advocate for criminal justice reform, took to the podium to address Clancy’s proposal. His comments may have caught Clancy and others off guard.

After stating that he stands “in strong support of the hard-working men and women of the Justice Services Department,” he said that he doesn’t feel that a pay raise, which he called “long overdue,” should be subsidized by federal money that will run out. He commented that other alternatives have been offered to Doug Burris, the director of justice services, in the past. However, he did not divulge details and after the meeting, Clancy said she wasn’t aware of what he was referencing.

A review of documents made available on the county’s website also failed to provide any insights as meeting minutes for the Justice Services Advisory Committee have not been published since January 2021 (although the group met as late as May 28, 2021).  Duvall was not around after the June 8 meeting for a follow-up comment. Duvall is a current member of the Justice Services Advisory Committee. However, in opening his comments on June 8, he stated that he was speaking as a citizen and not for the advisory committee.

During his remarks, Duvall contended that the proposed pay raise will benefit some middle management department members who don’t deserve it. He said several of those individuals, who do not have regular direct contact with inmates, already received disproportionate raises under the last director. He offered some documents to support his claim to council members; however, those documents were not immediately available to the media. 

For her part, Clancy noted that her proposal is scheduled for an upcoming hearing, but that several other hearings were scheduled sooner. She noted after the meeting that the bill’s progress (or lack thereof) falls to the discretion of the current council chairperson Rita Heard Days (D-District 1).

“It’s the chairwoman’s legislation and she gets to decide whether it moves forward or not,” Clancy said.

Clancy is the prior council chairperson who’s failed attempt to retain the position earlier this year was settled by a local judge. The fallout over the strife, which divided the council across party lines, is still playing out.

In addition to Clancy’s request for federal funds for the justice system, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell is seeking approximately $1.3 million from the ARPA award. In a letter submitted to the County Executive Sam Page and Days, Bell has stated that the money would be used to fund 14 new positions in his office. He contends the immediate increase in staffing is needed due to “a tremendous backlog of criminal cases” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The average caseload per attorney is up to 294 (up from 234 cases per attorney when we entered office), our grand jury has 678 cases pending (an 18% increase from 2019) and our office has 1,133 cases set for a preliminary hearing(a 32% increase from 2019),” Bell wrote in a letter dated May 25, 2021. “In the past, the public defender’s office and defense counsel would waive a preliminary hearing – a determination as to whether probable cause exists to bound a case over as opposed to it being dismissed – for most felonies. Now, the public defender’s office seeks a preliminary hearing for virtually every felony.”

Page forwarded the letter to the full council with his support for Bell’s request. However, the council has statedthat it will not distribute any of the ARPA award until it has reviewed how the county spent its CARES Act funding. A public hearing to review and discuss CARES Act expenses was scheduled for the afternoon of June 8; however, a technical problem caused the cancellation of the meeting.

Members of the St. Louis County Council during the June 8, 2021 meeting (from left) Ernie Trakas, Kelli Dunaway, Lisa Clancy, Dr. Sam Page, Rita Heard-Days and Mark Harder (Photo: Jeffrey Bricker)

While Bell’s request was not discussed or voted on during the June 8 meeting, the council did approve a proposal from council member Ernie Trakas (D-District 6) to provide an additional $394,832 to the county counselor’s office for the addition of seven new attorneys. Trakas argued this funding was essential since the council had previously voted to terminate the county counselor’s contacts with outside law firms hired to assist the county in various legal matters.

In recent years, the county has been the defendant in several discrimination cases involving employment issues with the St. Louis County Police Department. The county counselor has previously stated that the outside law firms were needed because of their expertise in labor and discrimination laws. It is safe to assume the new positions will be attorneys added to the staff to fill this expertise gap.

The proposal passed by a 4-3 vote with council members Tim Fitch (R-District 5), Shalonda Webb (D-District 4) and Days voting against it.

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