The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
October 24, 2018

Jail reform can—and should—come in many shapes and sizes

October 24, 2018

A version of this post appeared on the blog for the Safety and Justice Challenge on October 24, 2018.


Local decisions and dynamics are contributing to America’s high incarceration rates. Policing practices, judicial decisions, and crime patterns contribute to the overuse of jails. Millions of people cycle in and out of jails annually, disrupting the lives of many people and families and putting local governments under financial pressure.

To tackle this issue, many communities are looking at how they can safely reduce their jail populations, improve their responses to people with behavioral health needs, address racial and ethnic disparities, and reduce correctional costs. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has encouraged these innovations by investing more than $100 million in the Safety and Justice Challenge, which helps local jurisdictions tackle the misuse and overuse of jails.

The effort demonstrates the benefits of a flexible, locally focused approach to jail reform. As sites address their most urgent community needs, they also demonstrate the potential of varying reforms for partners across the country.

How small grants can lead to meaningful change

Within two years, the network of jurisdictions participating in the Safety and Justice Challenge grew to include implementation sites working on comprehensive reforms and Innovation Fund sites that receive seed funding to take risks and test innovative ideas.

Momentum for change is building and early results are promising.

  • In two years, Philadelphia has reduced its jail population by 36 percent.
  • East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana, established the parish’s first pretrial release program to operate from within the jail, which creates an option for some participants with behavioral health needs to avoid custody.
  • In Buncombe County, North Carolina, jail bookings for people with domestic violence charges were down 10 percent in late spring 2018, compared with the same period in 2017.

Today, the network is expanding with a new cohort of 12 Innovation Fund sites. Administered by the Urban Institute, the Innovation Fund further enhances the reach of the Safety and Justice Challenge network as it inspires and supports local innovation, experimentation, and peer learning across the nation.

The new cohort broadens the network to 52 jurisdictions in 32 states, a mix of geographically dispersed urban, suburban, and rural communities.

The new sites will deepen current reforms by zeroing in on new issues:

  • Assisting women coming in and out of jail (Cumberland County, Maine)
  • Improving connection to care for high utilizers (City of Long Beach, California)
  • Offering free rides to court hearings (Hennepin County, Minnesota)

Agencies who spearhead the reforms represent a wide variety of local leaders, such as sheriffs, the courts, prosecutors, public defenders, departments of health and human services, and city and county administrators.

The 12 Innovation Fund sites not only expand the reach of the Safety and Justice Challenge network but represent an inspiring array of justice reforms to safely reduce jail use.

Photo by Image Source/Getty Images.

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