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How to Reduce Jail Populations in Big Ways

Not everybody charged with a felony needs to be behind bars, and speeding up court processes can have a significant impact.

On any given day, about 2.2 million people in the United States -- one out of every 115 -- is in jail or prison, and both the number and rate have nearly doubled over the past 25 years. This huge increase has done nothing to enhance public safety. Almost 50 percent of people released from prison are re-incarcerated within three years, according to federal statistics, and those who spend even two days in pretrial detention are significantly more likely to recidivate after their cases are decided. In other words, we're paying billions of dollars to fail.

It's clear we need to do something different. And given that the 10.6 million annual admissions to local jails amount to more than 17 times the number of admissions to state and federal prisons, turning more attention to changing how we use jails could have far greater impact on our overall incarceration rates, reducing costs and increasing public safety.

In recent years, jurisdictions have been doing this in greater numbers, but efforts often focus primarily on "low-risk" individuals who could presumably be safely served in the community, such as people arrested for minor misdemeanors or those detained solely for failure to pay legal and financial obligations.

These efforts are incredibly worthwhile, but jurisdictions that focus solely on these groups are less likely to make significant dents in their jail populations in the short or long term, for two simple reasons: Individuals charged with lower-level offenses tend to stay in jail for short periods of time anyway, and in some places those people comprise a relatively small proportion of jail admissions.

To make big impacts on jail populations, we need to expand who we think of as good candidates for diversion or release, and we need to speed up case processing for others who must stay in custody for public-safety reasons. This means focusing on individuals seen as higher-risk, such as people who have been charged with nonviolent felonies or who are in jail because they violated the terms of probation or parole. These people not only tend to stay in jail longer than their lower-risk/lesser-charge counterparts, but they are much more likely to end up in jail in the first place.

In fact, people charged with felonies make up more than two-thirds of the jail population nationwide. Jurisdictions that can find ways to move some of these individuals charged with more serious crimes out of incarceration -- and do so safely -- can make significant progress toward reducing their reliance on jail.

A number of localities around the country are exploring these types of reforms through participation in the MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge, a national initiative to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses its jails. These jurisdictions are looking closely at their data and operations to figure out the best ways to significantly shrink their jail populations. Many are learning that to achieve these ambitious goals, they have to implement at least one or two strategies that go beyond the obvious low-hanging fruit and focus on "riskier" populations.

In Philadelphia, for example, the First Judicial District and other criminal justice leaders are reviewing data on continuances -- which postpone pending court actions -- in felony cases to understand what causes court processing delays, which lengthen the time defendants are held in jail. Based on the data, Philadelphia stakeholders plan to implement strategies to reduce delays; the goal is to reduce the length of time that people facing felony charges are held by 30 percent.

Harris County, Texas, launched its Responsive Interventions for Change Docket in 2016. This initiative focuses on nonviolent felony defendants with substance-abuse issues, redirecting them away from jail and into community-based alternatives. County officials are considering it for other types of felonies as well, such as driving under the influence and selected property offenses. While the new approach's impact on the jail population has yet to be parsed out, 85 percent of the 7,188 drug-related cases filed in the RIC Docket were diverted from jail as of this April.

And in Cook County, Ill., under an order from the chief judge, judges are now prohibited from detaining people who are not a public-safety risk in jail on bonds they cannot afford. The new system now requires judges to evaluate a defendant's financial circumstances, in addition to risk level and criminal history, before determining whether and how much bond should be set. As of this March 31, approximately six months after the order was implemented, the number of people being held in the county's jail had dropped 20 percent.

This emerging focus on jails as a major driver of mass incarceration is encouraging. With these bold actions, localities are moving the needle toward significantly reducing incarceration and reducing the ineffective and expensive use of jail.

Margaret Elliott, Emily Hotez and Paula Mukwaya contributed research for this column.

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