Urban Wire Local win-wins: How homegrown solutions can reduce incarceration and improve public safety
Samantha Harvell
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How can the trend of mass incarceration in the United States be reversed?

Increasingly, policymakers and the public are debating this question. US Attorney General Eric Holder has made it a cornerstone of his legacy, the National Research Council released a landmark report on the topic earlier this year, and the Department of Justice recently funded the Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections to analyze and devise solutions to curb growth in federal prisons.

Even traditionally “tough on crime” conservative voices are now some of the strongest supporters of smart-on-crime policies that reduce reliance on imprisonment in favor of more effective, less costly alternatives.

Yet a critical point is often lost among all the chatter: despite significantly more attention at the state and federal levels, many of the most promising solutions are local ones that start right in our own backyards.

As my colleagues recently pointed out, every person who ends up in state prison was originally charged and prosecuted at the local level. Local practices—like arrest and prosecutorial charging decisions—directly impact state prison populations. And local actors play a critical role both in implementing state reforms and in crafting their own policy solutions.

Fortunately, just like their counterparts in state and federal government, local leaders have gotten smarter on crime. Local jurisdictions across the country are identifying and implementing more effective, cost-efficient criminal justice solutions.

What’s working in one county

Take Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, for example. District Attorney John Chisholm leads a cross-agency workgroup that focuses on identifying and implementing evidence-based criminal justice reforms to improve individual outcomes and public safety.

Among other accomplishments, the group designed and scaled up a pretrial diversion program for low-risk offenders. The program identifies and funnels eligible individuals into evidence-based community programs instead of processing cases as usual. An evaluation demonstrated that those who successfully completed the program were less likely to reoffend than those who did not.

Milwaukee estimates that expansion of this program and a similar deferred prosecution program for moderate-risk offenders will decrease the county’s reliance on jail (freeing up almost 95,000 jail bed days over five years). The county could save more than $4.7 million that can be reinvested in these initiatives.

How other communities are getting smarter on crime

And Milwaukee is not alone. On Monday, Urban released interim findings from an ongoing assessment of the 17 localities participating in the federally funded Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI). Each of these local jurisdictions has analyzed the drivers of their local jail populations and implemented evidence-based solutions to improve public safety, cut costs, and reinvest the resulting savings in high-performing public safety strategies.

Two core challenges confronted more than half of the sites. Many people held in local jails are repeat clients—often those who struggle with mental health problems, substance abuse, and/or chronic homelessness—and defendants held awaiting trial. Research tells us that many of these individuals can be safely, and often more successfully, managed in the community.

Although the challenges are common, the local JRI sites have identified creative solutions that have the potential to improve outcomes and generate real savings for reinvestment.

  • Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, learned through JRI that a large number of people were booked into jail for driving with a revoked license. The county is piloting a low-cost driver’s license restoration clinic, staffed primarily by law students, to curb incarceration for this offense.
  • Delaware County, Ohio, is implementing a drug intervention program. In lieu of conviction, the program will divert eligible individuals charged with drug offenses into treatment right away, eliminating delays that can reduce program efficacy.
  • San Francisco, California, is devising an early termination protocol for eligible probationers that will shorten the standard three-year supervision term, which may be unnecessarily lengthy in some cases.

Why these reforms matter

So why should you care about these reforms? Because they have direct and important implications for all of us. Justice reinvestment can improve public safety, reduce harm to families and individuals, expand opportunities for gainful employment, and conserve scarce resources for other local priorities. And that is a win-win worth celebrating.

For more information on local justice reinvestment, visit our JRLL Resources page.

Illustration by Adrienne Hapanowicz, Urban Institute.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Co-hosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Corrections Courts and sentencing Crime and justice analytics Policing and community safety Mass incarceration
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center