A New Focus on Lockups at the Justice System’s Front End


Amid increasing attention to crowded U.S. prisons, the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation is trying to shift the focus to local jails that house many more people for much shorter periods, often in poor conditions.

The foundation assembled criminal justice leaders from around the U.S. in Washington, D.C., yesterday to outline a plan to spend $75 million over five years to promote reforms that could reduce jail populations and hold down crime rates at the same time.

Reformers usually have paid relatively little heed to jails because most defendants spend little time in them, either awaiting the disposition of their cases or serving short sentences for minor crimes. Critics have instead targeted long prison terms being served under laws like “three strikes and you’re out,” mandating life sentences for repeat offenses.

MacArthur contends that short jail stints jails matter, citing research suggesting that criminals can get started on long lawbreaking careers while they are held in local lockups. A 2013 study funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation found that defendants who were jailed for 8 to 14 days were 56 percent more likely than those held for no more than 24 hours to be rearrested before trial and 51 percent more likely to commit new crimes after completion of their sentences.

“Jails are where our nation’s incarceration problem begins,” declares MacArthur’s new Safety + Justice Challenge.

“It’s a wrong perception that putting people in jail will stop crime,” Dallas County, Tx., Sheriff Lupe Valdez said in a panel discussion at the MacArthur announcement.

While many arrestees may commit new crimes later, many do not—especially if they are placed into substance abuse treatment or job training programs instead of sitting in jail.

A basic cause of high jail populations is that “we still are arresting a lot of people who are low risks of committing another crime,” said Chief Judge Eric Washington of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, the highest court in the nation’s capital.

What’s more, a large percentage of those who end up in jail are not there because their crimes are serious, but because they can’t afford to get out under a longstanding “money bail” system in which suspects must pay commercial bail bond agents to guarantee their reappearance in court.

Critics of the current system argue that better tools of risk assessment can safely allow release of many defendants for little or no money, thus allowing them to go on with their lives while their cases are pending and reserving jail cells for truly dangerous suspects.

Some localities have experimented with such reforms, with good success in holding down the rate of new crimes by those who are released.

MacArthur will fund government agencies in 20 places to experiment with new ways of holding down their jail populations, while preserving public safety and saving taxpayer dollars.

Few contend that the MacArthur plan will produce instant results, at least nationally. Unlike prisons, most of which are run by state governments, jails typically are controlled by more than 3,000 county governments, many of which may resist reforms suggested by outside organizations.

Several panelists yesterday, noting high repeat-crime rates among released prisoners in the U.S., complained of what Kentucky state Public Advocate Ed Monahan called a “lack of sustained leadership.” Using an analogy to auto manufacturing, Monahan said that a company producing autos that failed at the rate that ex-prisoners do would go out of business or change executives.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon agreed, saying that criminal justice officials “keep doing the same thing over and over…and it fails 60 to 70 percent of the time,” citing recidivism rates.

“The system is broken at a basic level.”

MacArthur hopes that successful advances in the 20 pilot projects started with its grants will be replicated elsewhere. It’s a model being used by a parallel movement known as justice reinvestment, which has worked with bipartisan groups of leaders in states like Texas, Mississippi and South Carolina to change sentencing laws and probation and parole practices to keep more convicts out of prison. Projects evaluated as effective are promoted in other states.

The foundation presented one success story yesterday in a speech by Stan Hilkey, executive director of Colorado’s Department of Public Safety, former sheriff of Mesa County, in a conservative, rural part of the state.

Mesa has been one of seven counties from around the U.S. working with federal experts and others to adopt “evidence-based” decision making in which judges and sheriffs’ deputies use scientifically validated risk assessments to help decide on arrests and jail releases. So far, the county has reduced its population at a much higher rate than have other Colorado counties, Hilkey said.

Before the experiment, Mesa sheriffs’ deputies were not familiar with the concept of risk assessment. Hilkey discussed a case last year before the experiment started in which a Colorado state trooper was shot and seriously wounded by a man with a long criminal record who was freed after paying 10 percent of a $75,000 bond set by a judge. Under the new system, the man would have been rated as a high risk and not released.

The MacArthur Foundation’s Laurie Garduque told the group yesterday that grants would be offered to jurisdictions with jails of at least 50 beds. Grant applications must be in by March 31. More information can be found on this MacArthur website.

Editor’s Note: New York City Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte and other law enforcement officials Monday called for reforms to jail system, while addressing the Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. For coverage of the symposium, click HERE.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. Readers comments are welcomed.

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