An Ambitious Effort to Cut Jail ‘Over-Incarceration’


Can a mixture of cities, counties, and a state change the way jails are used–some say over-used–in the United States?

The Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation hopes so. It plans to invest $75 million in a national project aimed at doing that, just as it has pushed for changes in the juvenile justice system.

Yesterday, in a major step forward for the project, the foundation announced that 20 locations around the country will receive $150,000 grants to plan experiments aimed at demonstrating that many low-level offenders and defendants waiting for disposition of their cases don’t have to be behind bars—with no harmful impact on public safety. They were chosen from 191 applicants during a months-long evaluation process.

The 10 locations with the most promising plans will qualify next year for a second round of funding, between $500,000 and $2 million each year, to put their ideas into action.

The overall goal of the project is to reduce the nearly 12 million jail admissions around the U.S. each year, which critics say is costly to taxpayers while it encourages even more crime in the future.

The U.S. justice system “needs serious attention,” said MacArthur president Julia Stasch in a session for all of the new grantees at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. “When the justice system fails, virtually nothing else can succeed.”

The project got some key support from the Obama Administration in an appearance by Michael Botticelli, the director of national drug control policy. The drug czar declared that the nation’s jails “are being used to detain the wrong individuals” and called for a “public health” approach to drug problems rather than “punitive” criminal justice approach.

“We should be screening people out [of jail], not in,” said Botticelli, who alluded to the fact that he himself is a former addict.

He urged “turning the criminal justice system upside down and inside out” to accomplish the MacArthur initiative’s aims.

The plan also got a boost from Nicholas Turner, president of the New York City-based Vera Institute of Justice, which has advocated for jail reform since its founding in 1961. Turner alluded to the idea of “justice reinvestment,” which is being tried in many states, essentially reducing the inmate population and using the money saved on housing them for social programs to prevent repeat criminality.

Justice reinvestment has not always worked well in large, diverse states. Turner said that because the jail project is concentrated in large urban areas, the absence of a “rural-urban divide” on some criminal justice issues should achieve more unanimity.

Turner linked the jail reform effort to parallel projects to increase citizen trust of police officers after the deaths of unarmed African-American men at the hands of police in several cities. Noting that many U.S. defendants are sent to jail just because they can’t afford to stay out, Turner asked rhetorically, “Does that have anything to do with distrust of the criminal justice system?”

About three-fifths of the nation’s jail inmates are pretrial defendants who are presumed innocent, Turner said, adding that releases with no money paid based on suspects’ promises to return to court are less common than they were two decades ago.

The 20 areas chosen for initial MacArthur grants of $150,000 are Ada County, Id.; Charleston County, S.C.; Cook County, Il. (Chicago); Harris County, Tx. (Houston); Los Angeles County, Ca.; Lucas County, Oh.; Mecklenberg County, N.C.; Mesa County, Co.; Milwaukee County, Wi.; Multnomah County, Or. (Portland); New Orleans; New York City; Palm Beach County, Fl.; Pennington County, S.D.; Philadelphia; Pima County, Az.; St. Louis County, Mo.; Shelby County, Tn., (Memphis); Spokane County, Wa.; and the state of Connecticut.

The grantees were chosen based partly on their diversity of location and size, said MacArthur’s justice reform director, Laurie Garduque. Together they hold about 11 percent of the nation’s jail inmates at any time. Five grantees have jail populations of more than 5,000, and four have fewer than 1,000 inmates.

Representatives of the 20 jurisdictions are meeting today and tomorrow with experts to discuss their plans in detail.

MacArthur did not give a specific jail population reduction goal yesterday. Several places, including some of the new grantees and others that were not chosen, have succeeded in cutting their inmate totals already. Overall, however, the number of jail inmates has ballooned from 22,551 in 1983 to 735,601 in 2011, says a new Vera Institute report.

Vera said the annual jail budget totals jumped during the same period from $5.7 billion to $22.2 billion, and the latter figure far understates the real cost of jails because employee benefits and other related charges often are included in the budgets of other agencies.

“The national price tag for jails remains unknown and … taxpayers who foot most of the bill remain unaware of what their dollars are buying,” Vera said.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists, and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers comments.

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