Nationwide demonstrations in June 2020 following the police killing of George Floyd put a spotlight on police brutality and racism in America. They revealed how many people want to see not only accountability but also systemic changes to the criminal justice system, anchored in racial justice and equity. COVID-19 has also inspired many to ask, what if the criminal justice system prioritized the health and safety of people detained in jails and strove to reduce the nation’s reliance on jails?
Counties operate most local jails, which are known as the “front doors of incarceration.” This makes counties well positioned to lead the charge for systematic jail use reform. They typically employ prosecutors, public defenders, law enforcement, and court professionals, all of whom make key decisions that determine whether a person stays in the community for support or is detained in jail.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, some counties have been releasing people who do not pose a public safety risk and blocking jail admittance for the sake of public health. However, the number of people being released is outpacing the resources available to keep them sheltered, which perpetuates the homelessness-jail cycle.
Housing creates stability that can help people eliminate contact with the justice system, comply with the terms of their probation, and reduce their risk of recidivism. Jail stays—even short ones—create instability that can affect a person’s life quality, employment, access to opportunities, and other safety net services.
In a new era of justice, counties could help bridge the housing and justice fields to help people avoid justice-system involvement in the first place, improve reintegration, and target resources toward housing stability.
Understanding past harms is an important first step to expanding housing opportunities for people formerly involved with the justice system
For centuries, the US has overpoliced and disproportionately criminalized communities of color—especially Black men. County sheriffs (PDF) used tactics like Black codes and “convict leasing” to reinforce a racial hierarchy after the Civil War and criminalize Black people for loitering, breaking curfew, vagrancy, not carrying proof of employment, and other activities they deemed “offenses.” Frederick Douglass wrote that county officials had an interest in increasing the number of Black people convicted of crimes for “selfish and pecuniary” reasons.
By using “convict leasing,” counties shifted the responsibility of housing and feeding people in jails to private companies who acquired these costs. People in county jails faced harsher punishment than in state prisons because they also had to pay all of their court costs, usually by serving extended sentences.
The racist legacy of these local practices is why pronounced racial disparities in the justice system and homelessness rates exist today. Coming into contact with the justice system has a domino effect on a person’s life; it can fuel economic instability, reduce access to jobs, and create barriers to housing. As a result, people with previous justice-system involvement have been systemically deprived of access to resources necessary to stabilize themselves after jail.
Counties have the power to expand housing solutions for formerly justice-involved people
Counties can promote better outcomes for justice-involved people by evaluating how they approach housing policy and implementing equitable housing solutions. Here are some steps they could take to improve housing stability for people in their communities and reduce detention rates:
Embed housing planning across different points of the justice system. Navigating housing options is complicated, even for people who don’t face systemic barriers based on their race or socioeconomic status. Formally incorporating housing planning into the discharge process would connect people exiting jails to housing resources and supports and help them learn how to navigate programs to suit their needs. Including service providers at both the diversion and reentry stages would provide an additional opportunity to identify people at risk of experiencing homelessness and pair them with resources to help them secure stable housing.
For example, Tulsa County, Oklahoma, partners with community-based services and the City of Tulsa to hold the Special Services Docket, which connects people to services like housing and employment in lieu of jail time. And Alaska prioritizes rental assistance to people on parole and probation.
Fund permanent supportive housing for justice-involved people. Black people are 3.5 times more likely to end up in jail, and while in jail, they are less likely to receive the medical and behavioral health support they need. In some communities, jails act as the de facto mental health care system (PDF). Enhancing supportive housing options can improve outcomes for people with health-related challenges and help them stay in the community for support.
Some Pennsylvania counties have used Medicaid reinvestment to create a flexible pool of money for counties to build more supportive housing units. They have prioritized additional supportive housing units for people leaving or diverted from jail.
- Evaluate exclusionary practices that impede housing access. In response to COVID-19, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development released a waiver (PDF) that prioritizes housing reentry for people newly released from correctional facilities. It allows them to enter public housing without additional screenings. Public housing is already competitive and limited, and relaxing these policies opens the door for families to reunify and people to gain stability after their release.
- Institutionalize racial equity in data. Counties own powerful data (PDF) they can use to understand their residents’ lives and create better coordinated systems of care to help vulnerable residents. Disaggregating data can help counties target solutions to promote better outcomes for people who encounter the justice system and identify gaps in housing services.
Without understanding the systemic barriers and gaps in services, counties will continue to see disproportionate numbers of people of color in their jails. Recently, the Biden administration issued an executive order directing the federal government to advance racial equity. A key piece of this is the creation of an Equitable Data Working Group to improve federal data infrastructure. This historic order has signaled the federal government’s commitment to racial equity and data. Counties can follow suit and consider whether they could adapt their policies and data practices to advance racial equity through housing solutions that create stability for all.