The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 18, 2016

One way to reduce mass incarceration: Start local

August 17, 2016

As we search for ways to reduce mass incarceration, jails—the entry points to our nation’s criminal justice system—are often overlooked.

Local jails admit almost 19 times more people than prisons annually, with most admissions incarcerating people who have not been convicted of any crime and are awaiting court proceedings.

These trends disproportionately affect people with the lowest incomes, communities of color, and those affected by homelessness and mental illness. Three out of five people are jailed pretrial, often because they cannot pay bail, fines, and fees. Despite calls from the Justice Department to stop this “criminalization of poverty,” reliance on bails and fees keeps local jails a source of inequality and injustice. This inequality is magnified by the fact that black people are jailed at four times the rate of white people, and those admitted to jails have serious mental illness rates four to six times higher than the general population.

While there are many ways to reform local criminal justice systems, research shows that best practices include decreasing the number of people who are jailed pretrial, reducing reliance on bail and fees, and increasing availability and access to community-based treatment. 

Why thinking local matters

Every hour of incarceration prevents people from going to work, attending school, or taking care of their families. And the longer people are detained in jail, the likelier they are to be sent to prison and receive long sentences.

While local reform occurs on a smaller scale than statewide legislative change, it can significantly reduce the number of people exposed to the criminal justice system each day and help combat the impact of mass incarceration.

How cities and counties are tackling criminal justice reform

An Urban Institute report released today highlights several efforts from localities engaged in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. Seventeen counties across the country participated, analyzing the drivers of their jail populations and implementing solutions to address them.

  • In San Francisco, a city marked by high-profile racial tensions in policing and a recent report showing how the police discriminate against black residents, researchers found significant racial disparities in the criminal justice system, with black adults disproportionately represented at every stage in the process. Blacks were 7 times as likely as whites to be arrested, 11 times as likely to be jailed, and 10 times as likely to be convicted. They were also less likely to be sentenced to probation than whites, and those who received probation received longer sentences.

    The initiative helped San Francisco identify the scope of its racial disparities, prompted the city to establish community engagement sessions for those most affected by incarceration, and introduced a way for people on probation to possibly shorten their supervision time.

  • Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, opted to address the large number of people jailed for driving with revoked licenses. Driving license revocations can be a source of disparate justice system involvement, as they disproportionately affect people of color and those with lower incomes, often by taking away licenses for reasons unrelated to traffic violations or public safety, such as failing to pay fines or appear in court.

    In Mecklenburg, this phenomenon was especially heightened, as North Carolina law permits license revocation for more than 70 reasons, many unrelated to traffic violations. To help combat this, Mecklenburg created a license restoration clinic to help people address outstanding fines or warrants that affected their driving eligibility—and navigate the Department of Motor Vehicles’ bureaucratic processes to have their licenses restored.

  • New York City created a new supervised release program to reduce the number of people sent to Rikers Island, a jail known nationally for violence and poor conditions. About 85 percent of the Rikers population consists of people not yet convicted of a crime, largely held for their inability to pay bail. Part of the city’s strategy was to implement a pretrial screening tool in all arraignment courts across the five boroughs, designed to release people arrested for nonviolent misdemeanors and felonies.

    This program, launched in March, offers supervision, services, and treatment referrals to people who may otherwise have been jailed, and is making strides in reducing reliance on monetary bail.

  • Milwaukee, Wisconsin, focused on diverting people from jail and expanding services for people with mental health needs. People with mental illness face disproportionate contact with the police, which is often magnified in overpoliced communities of color, where mental health diagnoses are more prevalent and residents receive less treatment. The failure of jails to address mental health has been brought to the forefront of national media in the wake of Sandra Bland’s 2015 death and the 810 people who died in jail in the year after her death.

    Milwaukee’s reforms improved their early intervention programs, which divert people determined to be low risk for reoffending into community-based services rather than jail.

While these represent just a few local efforts taking place throughout the country, they demonstrate promising policies with an eye toward the larger goal of reducing mass incarceration. Given that jails are an important gateway into the system and touch the lives of exponentially more people than prisons, why not start there?

Sheriff's department deputies fingerprint a group of prison inmates at the San Diego Central Jail in San Diego, California. Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Corbis via Getty Images

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