A ‘Roadmap’ for Taxpayers: Do You Really Need That Bigger Jail?

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King County Correctional Facility, Seattle. Photo by Jail Exchange via Flickr

With overcrowded jails posing a crisis in many parts of the U.S., local authorities often resort to a simple solution: Build bigger facilities.

But taxpayers asked to approve new jail bonds should beware of the “collateral costs” of jail expansion, ranging from additional health care burdens for incarcerated persons, to the financial impact on families and communities from higher child welfare costs and loss of jobs, says the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI).

And that’s just one of the areas where citizens should pose tough questions to policymakers before they accept apparently logical arguments for expensive new jails—unless there is no other alternative to older, inadequate facilities, PPI argues in what it calls a “guide for avoiding unnecessary jail expansion.”

PPI describes the guide, whose publication was supported by the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, as a “roadmap to easier, quicker, cheaper, and more just solutions to jail overcrowding.”

Entitled, “Does Our County Really Need a Bigger Jail?”, the guide sets out 33 questions taxpayers should ask, such as whether county authorities are arresting too many people who don’t need to be kept incarcerated, either because they have been convicted of low-level felonies or because they are too poor to afford money bail and are awaiting trial.

A second part provides examples of jurisdictions that have developed innovative strategies to reduce their jail populations without adversely affecting public safety.

One section, for example notes that large numbers of poor Americans in jail are there simply because they are being punished for failure to pay fines and administrative fees incurred by the justice system that can add up to thousands of dollars.

Taxpayers should therefore ask:

  • How many warrants are issued and executed on the basis of a “failure to pay’ or “failure to appear” at a proceeding related to fines and fees?
  • Does their county take into account an individual’s ability to pay when imposing fees and fines?
  • Does their county have payment plans, community service in lieu of payment, and exemption waivers available for poor defendants?

A key driver of burgeoning jail populations is the lack of non-carceral alternatives for treatment of mental illness or substance abuse issues, says PPI, noting that 68 percent of the nation’s jailed population “meets medical standards for having a diagnosable substance abuse disorder.”

By asking hard questions about whether the county has considered alternatives such as community-based treatment programs, or collaborative law enforcement and health care teams to divert troubled individuals from the justice system, taxpayers can make better judgments about where to invest scarce revenues, PPI said.

According to 2013 figures, 84 percent of the nation’s jails now hold people for state or federal facilities, such as the Federal Marshalls service or Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

While many sheriffs are prominent supporters of such policies because of the additional revenues brought in, it’s just as likely that ending contracts with other authorities would not only reduce overcrowding but save money, PPI said.

“Jails often cost far more than communities anticipate,” said PPI. “Constructing a new jail often costs the county tens of millions of dollars (and) it also diverts a large portion of the county’s budget, preventing them from investing in education, drug treatment, affordable housing and other services that could reduce crime and incarceration.”

PPI admitted that many of the most innovative strategies in use today are practiced by large urban jurisdictions. In rural counties, however, where the overcrowding crisis has become sharpest, there’s less breathing space for reinvestment or reallocation of funds.

In such jurisdictions, taxpayer demands for more investment in health care and alternative services might appear to be optimistic.

Nevertheless, citizens in those areas should ask whether “partnerships” between neighboring countries might be a smarter bet, allowing shared services and funding, rather than investing in brand-new construction projects, PPI said.

“Rural counties can benefit from the experiences of larger jurisdictions that have assumed much of the early risks of these innovations and reforms,” PPI argued. “(They) can find ways to adapt those lessons in the rural communities where it is now most urgently needed.”

Considering that 76 percent of the individuals held in local jails around the U.S. are not convicted of a crime “and are legally presumed innocent,” just building larger jails to accommodate them does little to address the roots of the overcrowding crisis, the PPI guide said.

But questions about whether a jail expansion project is necessary should not just be limited to county managers, PPI said. Local law enforcement, judges and prosecutors are equally responsible for current overcrowding —as a result of sentencing policies and local enforcement culture.

Left unsaid in PPI’s “roadmap” was the fact that such hard-line approaches are often driven in turn by popular opinion and the press, fueled by often evidence-challenged fears for public safety.

Which may suggest that the hard questions taxpayers need to ask about their local jail policies should also be directed at themselves.

The guide was written by Alexi Jones, a policy analyst at PPI.

Read the full guide here.

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