Lucas County, Ohio: A Case Study in Fixing America’s Broken Jails

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Toledo, Ohio--the main city in Lucas County. Photo courtesy Ohio Redevelopment Project via Flickr

For years, the jail in Lucas County, Ohio was an embarrassment.

Elevators didn’t work; inmates slept on floors because of overcrowding; and living conditions resembled an “overall cesspool,” recalls Sheriff John Tharp.

John Tharp

Lucas County Sheriff John Tharp

But today overcrowding has eased with a 24 percent reduction in the pretrial jail population, and a spirit of optimism is shared ac ross the county that they are on their way to significant change.

What happened?

The answer, Tharp and other Lucas County officials told a conference at John Jay College this week, came from a shift in perspectives that involved rethinking how all the parts of the justice system could work together efficiently.

And it involved listening to the individuals who were at the system’s short end: the jail inmates themselves.

“People felt that the system was listening to them,” said Holly Matthews, executive director of the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, a multi-stakeholder group formed to guide the county’s painstaking journey towards reform.

“They felt they had a voice in the system…[and] this is the outcome you want,” she said.

Holly Matthews

Holly Matthews. Photo by John Ramsey/TCR

In 2016, Lucas County was one of ten “core” sites selected as part of a nationwide effort by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “Safety + Justice Challenge” to explore ways to fix the nation’s broken jail system. Over the past several decades, jails have emerged as the hidden drivers behind the rise in mass incarceration, with jail populations—particularly in rural areas—tripling since 1980 even as prison numbers fell.

“Research has shown that spending as few as two days in jail can increase the likelihood of a sentence of incarceration,” the foundation said in a statement describing the program. “(It makes) jail a gateway to deeper and more lasting involvement in the criminal justice system.”

See also: Rural (InJustice): The Hidden Crisis in America’s Jails

The $25 million program, which will expand to an estimated 40 jurisdictions, aims to incubate innovative approaches that could serve as models across America of ways to relieve overcrowding.

The county, with a population of 441,000 and located in northwestern Ohio (county seat is Toledo) received a grant of $1.76 million to implement its plan for change over a two-year period.

The key stakeholders gathered at John Jay to discuss the results of what was, in effect, a case study in changing hearts and minds before a group of rural reporting fellows participating in a two-day conference exploring the roots of the jail crisis.

The Challenge

The growth of the jail population in Lucas County and the consequent overcrowding reached a degree which demanded a reform in Lucas County’s method of making pretrial release and detention decisions.

In 2014, a year after Tharp was elected sheriff , his focus became building a new jail to remedy these pressing issues. His fervor helped initiate the process of positive change.

Gene Zmuda

The Hon. Gene Zmuda. Photo by John Ramsey/TCR

The obvious first question in constructing a new jail is “What size does it need to be?’

It was a seemingly simple question, but it caused county officials to step back and examine what was driving their increase in jail numbers. They singled out an assessment instrument used in determining whether defendants would be offered bail—a tool used for decades but provided little useful information about the arrestee’s background.

“It was the gospel tool, but it really wasn’t efficient,” said Judge Gene Zmuda of the Lucas County Court of Common Pleas, who became one of the prime players in the criminal justice coordinating council.

Zmuda said the tool, which had been used for decades in many jurisdictions around the country, contributed to the harmful system in which high-risk, wealthy individuals are frequently released from jail pending trial, while low-risk—usually nonviolent—defendants spend a significant amount of time in jail simply because they cannot afford to post bail.

In order to holistically consider the factors that contribute to an individual’s risk to society and therefore their release, Lucas County adapted the Arnold Foundation Public Safety Assessment (PSA) tool in 2015.

As defined by the Arnold Foundation, the PSA pretrial risk assessment tool “uses evidence-based, neutral information to predict the likelihood that an individual will commit a new crime if released before trial, and to predict the likelihood that he will fail to return for a future court hearing.”

Additionally, the tool indicates individuals who have a heightened probability of committing a violent crime while release on recognizance.

Race and gender neutral, this tool considers the answers to nine questions, gathering information on factors such as age, current offense, and prior convictions (including violent offenses).

“Because this is a risk-based tool, it allows judges to make more informed decisions,” explained Zmuda.

Within three years, this new method resulted in a 30 percent reduction in the average Failure to Appear (FTA) rate, and a 50 percent reduction in the average crime committed, including violent crime, said Matthews.

These figures underscored the county’s goal of keeping the community safe while lessening the strain, both fiscal and social, that a swollen jail population creates.

The positive effects that this one change induced led officials to examine additional areas of their justice system where reform seemed promising and impactful.

“We know we can do [even] better while still maintaining public safety and providing the appropriate services to our community,” says Matthews.

At that point, Lucas County applied for and was selected to participate in the Safety + Justice Challenge.

Strategies for Change

Lucas County selected five strategies to implement after sitting down with stakeholders to fully understand their system and identify problem areas.

One: Pre-arrest Deflection

The main goal of this first strategy is to prevent an individual from coming in contact with the jail (and the justice system) in the first place.

This “pre-arrest” phase revolved around law enforcement. Police have the discretion to determine the next step for an individual: take him or her into custody, send the individual home, or refer her to a crisis center. Officers received training in skills needed for crisis intervention.

In partnership with the Center for Court Innovation, Lucas County planned to implement a four-hour deflection curriculum class for individuals who commit specific targeted offenses including drug possession, disorderly conduct, and obstructing official business.

If an individual completes this course within a month of eligibility, no charges will be filled against. This breaks the revolving door, and reduces the amount of low-risk, nonviolent offenders being sent to jail.

The reason for the delay in complete implementation, notes Matthews, is finding a place where officers feel comfortable bringing an individual eligible for this deflection class, but who needs to be removed from the scene and assessed.

For example, an intoxicated individual arrested for disorderly conduct will not understand the conditions of the diversion course until after he or she is sober.

Two: Managing Based on Risk

The notion of whether or not someone will be released from custody after arrest using a validated risk tool is just the beginning, says Zmuda.

“Once you decide that a [person] is not really a threat to the community or themselves, and therefore shall be released,… how do we deal with it?” he said.

It’s important to get an individual who poses no threat released as quickly as possible from jail,because even a few days in jail can make someone more “criminal minded” and therefore more likely to commit additional offenses, said the judge.

The question then becomes what extent of oversight should the justice system have on that released individual?

Strategy Two has created a “risk score” using the PSA tool to determine the amount of connection that an individual has with the court. The higher the score, the more the connection.

This score, along with the results from the PSA questions, are entered into a digital dashboard allowing officials to easily find comprehensive information for specific offenders in a timely manner.

Zmuda also notes the effectiveness of electronic monitoring as a risk oversight tool, saying that the person is not taking up resources in custody, yet is still not free; there are considerable restrictions placed upon those individuals.

With the digital dashboards, information of offenders supervised by electronic monitoring who enter a restricted zone is immediately added to the dashboard, notifying officers, officials, as well as victims (if applicable).

Three: Population Review Team

The sharing of information is crucial to understanding the whole picture, especially in the case of an offender. Under this strategy, the digital dashboards are shared with all stakeholders involved. This is especially useful for judges, who can now see information on an individual in real-time on the bench when making sentencing or bail decisions.

In order to compile this data, Lucas County has formed a population review team, consisting of a group of officials who review the pretrial jail population on a weekly basis. They look at each specific case to determine exactly who is in the jail and why, including examining documents such as arrest reports, affidavits, and plea negotiations.

According to Matthews, this comprehensive collaboration and review saved 1,800 contracted jail bed days in 2017, effectively eliminating the county jail’s sentence-serving population.

In addition, this team of pretrial service professionals reviews bond recommendations which includes prosecutors, public defenders, pretrial service professionals, mental health personnel, the Lucas County Sheriff’s office and Commissioners’ office. This results in the identification of individuals who are suitable for expedited case resolution or bond modification, getting a defendant through the system as quickly as possible.

This strategy is very effective in quantifying trends that show who is being put in jail, why and for how long, allowing officials to pinpoint potential issues within the jail system.

Four: Diversion of the Underserved Population

Reaching populations that are under-served and overlooked within the system is imperative to addressing underlying issues driving jail numbers.

With the PSA tool, there are no disparities in the release decision of an offender. When determining an individual’s situation, a judge has no racial or gender-based bias that would lead to inequality in this decision (if based solely on the PSA).

In this implementation, as well as the deflection curriculum course, Matthews reported that the feedback of these strategies was overwhelmingly positive.

Five: Coordinated Probation Practices

When reviewing exactly who was in the Lucas County Jail, officials found that over30 percent of the population comprised individuals who violated parole.

One of the reasons why this number is so high is due to the lack of coordinated probation practices. Lucas County maintains five adult probation authorities which serve each of the five independent criminal courts within the county jurisdiction.

These different authorities did not coordinate in operating policies and procedures for offender supervision or case management for offenders serving probation in more than one court. This forces individuals on parole to juggle different, sometimes conflicting, standards and obligations, resulting in technical violations of parole, landing the individual in jail for a minor infraction.

To facilitate coordination, Lucas County hired a community corrections coordinator who brought training and evidence-based practices to the facilities; stressing the importance again of sharing information.


Since the implementation of these strategies in 2016, the Lucas County average daily jail population has undergone a 26.3 percent reduction.

Not only is the general total on a decline but the population of inmates in jail for pretrial detention was reduced by 20 percent.

Lucas County found that African Americans represent 58 percent of the arrested jail population while they represent only 19 percent of the general community population and 29 percent of those diverted from the system.

This made it clear that in order to address racial and ethnic disparities within the justice system, the focus must be on arrest and diversion.

As Lucas County shows, the role that pretrial deflection and post-conviction supervision plays in the reducing the jail population is critical.

After seeing the success that the innovations funded by the Safety + Justice Challenge brought about within the jail system, Lucas County is currently applying to multiple foundations for additional grants, striving to expand these efforts and bring about greater positive results.

Judge Zmuda conceded that many elected judges are fearful of taking risks that might result in the release of someone who later commits a crime, but he said such incidents are rare, and are outweighed by the harm that the current justice system often exacts on individuals who deserve better treatment.

“Judges are elected to do justice, not just to be [judges],” he said.

Laura Binczewski is a TCR News Intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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