Known for work with federal courts, Doug Burris tapped as head of troubled St. Louis County jail

The+Buzz+Westfall+St.+Louis+County+Justice+Center%2C+as+seen+in+June+2019.+Photo+by+Gloria+Lloyd.

Photo by Gloria Lloyd

The Buzz Westfall St. Louis County Justice Center, as seen in June 2019. Photo by Gloria Lloyd.

By Gloria Lloyd, News Editor

The troubled St. Louis County jail will get its third director in three weeks in Doug Burris, a nationally known retired federal probation officer who will take the job as acting jail director starting Sept. 28 and then become permanent director once the County Council approves.

After the Aug. 28 resignation of Department of Justice Services director Raul Banasco, who had just taken the job overseeing the St. Louis County Justice Center last November, acting director Darby Howard also announced his resignation this week but said he would keep the job until a replacement was found. Banasco had held the position of jail administrator in other states and came to St. Louis County to take the job after the deaths of several inmates in the span of one year at the jail, but 55 Justice Services employees sent the council a letter Aug. 25 accusing him of creating a toxic workplace.

Doug Burris

The council agreed in two committee hearings in the last two weeks that whoever becomes interim or permanent director will have to fix the ongoing issues at the county jail, officially the St. Louis County Justice Center.

County Executive Sam Page announced his choice for acting director of Justice Services Wednesday: Burris, former chief probation officer for the federal court in the Eastern District of Missouri, will become acting director Sept. 28 and serve in that role until confirmed as director by the County Council. Burris, a former Oakville resident, will be paid $145,000 for the role.

“I am thrilled that Doug has agreed to join my administration, building on the reforms that we have worked so hard on since April 2019,” Page said in a news release.

Burris said he is looking forward to working with Justice Center’s professional staff, the jail’s residents and the community.

“Developing new leaders from within and teaming with the community for better outcomes is just an opportunity I could not pass up,” Burris said.

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell said Burris is the right choice to lead Justice Services: “That’s a very tough job with a lot that needs to be done. Doug has the experience and commitment to do just that.”

Burris is not the first major position he has filled from the Eastern District, where his predecessor Steve Stenger was prosecuted. County Counselor Beth Orwick had been a federal prosecutor in the Eastern District.

U.S. Attorney Jeff Jensen praised the work of Burris for the federal courts.

“The best indication of future performance is past performance,” Jensen said in the release. “In the federal system, as Chief Probation Officer, Doug Burris designed and implemented a system that has yielded some of the lowest recidivism rates in the United States. Doug’s career demonstrated his flawless administrative skills and ability to respect all involved in the criminal justice system.”

U.S. District Chief Judge Rodney Sippel said of Burris: “He was extraordinarily effective and innovative in dealing with ex-offenders as they reentered society. He was recognized around the country for his efforts in the Eastern District of Missouri, receiving national awards.”

Burris received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma. After a career as an executive in the private sector, he began work as a federal probation officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1995 and became chief probation officer in the Eastern District of Missouri in 2000.

Burris retired from the federal court in February 2018, when the court issues a press release that said he had served with “distinction and honor” in the role.

Under the direction of Burris, the U.S. Probation Office for the Eastern District said it “is renowned for development and implementation of reentry programs that continue to reduce rates of supervised release violations, recidivism, and unemployment.” In a letter to the court asking for leniency and an alternative to incarceration for Page’s predecessor in office, former County Executive Steve Stenger, former County Executive Gene McNary noted that Burris was a leader in probation alternatives for the court, especially for those who had committed non-violent, white-collar crimes. Bell has said he also prioritizes such criminal justice reform. 

Johnny Shy’s friends gather for a vigil outside the Justice Center in March 2019 after Shy’s death in the jail.

Burris received multiple national awards during his career, including the National Association of Probation Executives Award for Exceptional Leadership and the Director’s Award for Outstanding Leadership. Mr. Burris also received the Director’s Award for Extraordinary Actions after leading the court’s response to a sentencing retroactive reduction, a change in federal law that impacted 26,000 federal inmates. He is the only two-time winner of the Director’s Award in the history of federal probation.

Burris testified as an expert on recidivism reduction strategies before the U.S. Senate and conducted multiple presentations at the White House. As a guest of the president, he watched the signing of the Second Chance Act, the most comprehensive prisoner reentry legislation ever passed.

Burris has been profiled in books including “Diamond Quality Leadership: The Six Qualities that Separate the Best Leaders from the Rest” and “Watch Everything: A Judicial Memoir”; and in documentaries: “Out of the Box,” Crossing the Line: Ordinary People Committing Extraordinary Crimes,” and “Blood Brothers: How our Children Become Killers.”

His achievements have been featured in national press reports including CNN, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and NPR’s All Things Considered. He has been the featured speaker at numerous events and law schools across the country.

In addition to his service to the court, Burris was an adjunct professor at St. Louis University and a member of the Harvard University Executive Session on Community Corrections, a three-year think tank.

At the time Burris retired Sippel stated, “It is impossible to list all of the contributions Doug Burris has made to the administration of justice. His tireless efforts have made our community a better place to live. His leadership has made this Probation Office a model for the rest of the country.”

Reflecting back on his 18 years in the Eastern District, Burris stated, “Working for the Judges and others in this District has been the greatest honor of my life. With Scott Anders selected as the incoming Chief U.S. Probation Officer, the District will get even better in the immediate future and continue to be the benchmark for the rest of the system.”