Urban Wire How Can Localities Reduce Their Overreliance on Jails?
Azhar Gulaid
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Exterior shot of jail building

Jails in the United States are overused and misused. They often detain people accused of nonviolent crimes and unable to afford bail (PDF), people who lack housing, and those who, evidence shows, would be better served by local programs for mental health needs or addiction treatment. But how can we reduce the reliance on jails for these groups?

Safely reducing jail incarceration and eliminating racial disparities in jails are the central goals of the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC), a network of cities, counties, and states across the country. The Urban Institute is documenting the strategies sites are using to reduce their jail populations, with the goal of sharing lessons learned, challenges, and successes with other localities facing similar issues.

In three new case studies, we examine different approaches to jail reduction in five jurisdictions participating in the SJC. Based on our findings, here are four considerations for other jurisdictions seeking to reduce their jail populations.

  1. Share and examine data together with stakeholders. Sharing data supports effective collaboration among system actors and can help them understand broader system dynamics, problem areas, and opportunities for progress. For example, Charleston County, South Carolina, established a data warehouse for multiple partner agencies to contribute data. The county developed a new cite and release strategy for low-level charges based on their findings about the most frequent charges for which people were booked into the jail and racial disparities in those charges. In St. Louis County, Missouri, data review plays a central role in meetings for their population review team, a multidisciplinary team that examines the jail population, identifies factors related to long stays in jail, and works to improve case processing.
  2. Collaborate to enhance cross-system operations and reform the local criminal legal system. Implementing formal or informal collaborative bodies that cut across agencies and include nonsystem actors, such as representatives from community-based organizations and health experts, can help with achieving broader systemwide change. Jail population review teams in the City and County of San Francisco, California, and St. Louis County formed to address cases at the individual level and identify local drivers of the jail population. Local stakeholders shared that their changes to policy and practice were in large part because of their collaborative efforts. In East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana, the multidisciplinary Criminal Justice Coordinating Council established rapid case assessment teams, including prosecutors, public defenders, and client advocates, who meet regularly to review cases of newly arrested people (PDF).
  3. If using risk assessment tools, ensure that local validation studies are conducted and offer varied and robust pretrial options. Validation studies can highlight racial and ethnic disparities in the risk assessment tool, and there is limited value in implementing a risk assessment tool if there are little to no pretrial services or options other than detention. Both Lucas County, Ohio, and Charleston County participated in validation studies comparing their risk assessment tool’s predictive validity by age groups, race, and gender. A validation study in Lucas County prompted stakeholders to reconsider weights in the scoring. To offer multiple pretrial options, Lucas County developed a structured decisionmaking framework to serve as a companion to the risk assessment tool and provide judges with several pathways, including release on recognizance and release with pretrial supervision.
  4. Engage community members in reform efforts. Although community members have unique perspectives and valuable knowledge, especially people with lived experience in the criminal legal system, they have historically been excluded from much decisionmaking. Community engagement in policymaking is key to implementing reforms reflective of actual community needs. System stakeholders can engage community members with data and collaborative efforts. In Charleston County, the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council has communicated data through public-facing dialogues, and St. Louis County disseminates aggregate jail data to both system stakeholders and the general public through dashboards. Criminal justice coordinating councils can include representatives from community-based organizations, victim advocacy groups, and people who have been involved in the legal system.

To reduce jail populations effectively and safely, reforms must happen at the local level. Other localities seeking to reduce their reliance on jails can turn to the SJC to ensure they’re accounting for the necessary considerations.

Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Crime and justice analytics Mass incarceration Alternatives to incarceration Place-based initiatives
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center
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