On the heels of the Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Trayvon Martin tragedies — and in light of more recent injustices like the fatal shooting of Antonio Zambrano-Montes, an unarmed Mexican national whom Pasco, Wash., police officers saw fit to shoot multiple times despite his apparent surrender — there’s plenty of reason to despair the sorry state of our criminal justice system and the havoc it wreaks on the lives of too many innocent victims and their families.
But these days, there is some reason for hope. In the wake of so much cop-on-civilian violence, we’re beginning to hear a national rallying cry for criminal justice reform — and not just from protestors and progressives, who have been leading the charge for decades, but also from unlikely allies, including the Koch Brothers and Newt Gingrich. This is an issue that unites the ACLU and Americans for Tax Reform, the Center for American Progress and FreedomWorks. And given this broad-based enthusiasm behind fixing our criminal justice system, it’s time we paid attention to a critical component that’s been missing from the conversation: the crisis in our nation’s local jails.
Although we hear plenty about increasing rates of mass incarceration within state and federal prisons, we hear much less about the role played by local jails. This silence should be startling, as there are 11.7 million local jail admissions every year in the United States — twice as many as there were 20 years ago — compared to 631,000 state and federal prison admissions. The problem looks especially stark — and constitutionally troublesome — when you consider that, at any given moment, some three-fifths of the 722,000 prisoners in America’s local jails have not been convicted of the alleged crime for which they’re being detained. Many, in fact, are simply too poor to post even a small bail to get out while their cases are being processed.
A recently released report from the Vera Institute of Justice paints a disturbing picture. It found that nearly 75 percent of local-jail admits are suspects who have committed nonviolent crimes like traffic, property, drug, or public-order offenses — people, in other words, who rarely pose a significant risk to public safety and who don’t need to be incarcerated. Further, the report found that social cost of the rapid growth of incarceration in local jails has been compounded by its enormous monetary cost to taxpayers. From 1982 to 2011, the cost of building and running jails increased by nearly 235 percent. “Of the more than $60 billion spent annually on correctional institutions,” the report says, “$22.2 billion is spent by local jurisdictions.” What’s more, the racial disparities that define so many aspects of our criminal justice system — from stop-and-frisk to mass prison incarceration — are fixtures of local jails, too. While blacks and Latinos comprise nearly a third of the overall prison population, they represent half of prisoners in local facilities.
Making matters worse, unlike with prisons and penitentiaries, there is no single federal level fix to jails. Local jails in America comprise a patchwork of systems that are run independently, operate under different punitive philosophies and face different practical challenges. Put differently, there are more than 3,000 sherrifs in charge of our local jails, each contributing uniquely to the problem in his or her own unique way, from New Orleans’s Marlin Gusman, who presides over the “worst city jail in America,” to Maricopa County, Ariz.’s Joe Arpaio, whose alleged abuses of Latinos boggle the mind and sicken the stomach.
In the face of such a daunting challenge — and in addition to the political willpower needed to both push reform forward and roll failed “tough on crime” tactics back — we need real resources to help cities and counties develop alternatives to incarceration and to end our overreliance on local jails. The MacArthur Foundation has committed $75 million to do just that. The Safety and Justice Challenge is an initiative that will focus “where over-incarceration begins,” supporting up to 20 jurisdictions in their work to reduce the population of local jails. Framed as a competition, the challenge encourages jurisdictions to think creatively and to derive evidence-based solutions to the problem. The competition is open to any jurisdiction — state, county, city, district or tribal — that maintains at least 50 beds in its jail system.
There are already promising examples on the ground.
In response to overwhelming evidence that shows how jails often serve as the last stop for mentally ill people who can’t find other community resources, the police department in Portland, Ore. , now provides special training for all officers to help them better manage people with mental illnesses. The department also runs a mobile crisis unit to help people the mentally ill get treatment instead of a costly jail sentence that often impairs recovery.
In Minnesota, the Hennepin County District Attorney’s office partners with the nonprofit Operation de Novo to help low-risk arrestees make amends through community service and a payment plan, not jail time. So far, it has kept 800 people out of jail and collects more than $250,000 in restitution for victims of crimes.
We need more programs like these, championed not just by advocates and researchers, but also by law enforcement officials, prosecutors and judges who see these problems firsthand (and who must deal with the results of inadequate “solutions”). More Americans than ever, across a transpartisan spectrum, now understand that incarceration-as-usual isn’t working. We need more people to recognize that local jails are a big part of the problem, and that they can — and must — be part of the solution.