This commentary was originally featured in USA Today on October 23, 2017.
Local corrections costs have quadrupled over the past 40 years. And paying for jails' rising financial burden has inflicted a severe punishment against one group in particular — local taxpayers.
Operating jails has contributed to the doubling of local tax burdens since 1977. This trend is not surprising given that the nation’s average daily local jail population quadrupled to 630,000 since 1970. Unfortunately, the incomes of most families have not kept pace.
If the massive growth in jails and their related costs were necessary to make us safer, the price would be well worth it. However, research has found that when low-risk people are detained before trial, the chance they will be rearrested actually increases.
Local jails are now admitting nearly 12 million people every year, and many leaders across the country — from sheriffs to judges — have come together to explore how to improve public safety outcomes without being too tough on taxpayers. They're reducing jail populations by eliminating ineffective, inefficient and unfair practices that take a heavy toll on people of color, low-income communities and people with mental health and substance abuse issues.
Why are people who don't pose risk in jail?
Our nation’s jails are meant to hold those who pose a flight risk or threat to public safety. Yet nearly three-quarters of people in jail are admitted for non-violent traffic, property, drug or public order offenses. About 70% of people in jail are awaiting trial.
Jailing people who are not likely to flee or who don't pose a risk to public safety takes a toll on families and communities. Parents are separated from their children and jobs that could generate income. Time that could be spent helping those in jail who may suffer from mental health issues is also lost. Communities are hit doubly hard for each inmate — income normally invested in the local economy isn't. In addition, it is estimated that each American household spends $185.37 on local jails annually.
But a growing number of local leaders — such as those in Philadelphia, Toledo, Charleston and Portland — recognize that everyone benefits when local justice systems are fairer. Those areas have already seen significant declines in their average daily jail populations.
Beyond reducing jail populations, cities and counties are rethinking how jails fit into the broader local justice system and finding alternatives to jail.
Recognizing that far too many jails have become warehouses for people with mental health and substance abuse issues, some local leaders are building bridges between law enforcement and treatment providers.
In Charleston County, S.C., for example, officers are taking people suffering from mental health and substance abuse issues directly to a triage center for treatment instead of taking them to jail. This practice has reduced the county's jail bookings by 30% and the average daily population by 10% since 2015.
New Orleans has stopped jailing people because they simply could not afford to pay a fine (such as an outstanding traffic ticket), after realizing that the practice was useless. The fines remained unpaid, while taxpayers picked up a jail tab for the inmate.
Multiple solutions to jail problem
There is no single solution or quick fix to right-size local corrections systems. But it is possible to identify and implement effective solutions if local leaders feel empowered to do so. What empowers this work is broad-based community engagement and support for the process of reform as well as resolve on the part of both community and leadership to see system changes through.
We're seeing this resolve manifest in communities around the country, where leaders are experimenting with ideas to reduce the impact of jails on both defendants, communities and taxpayers.
Portland, Ore., is putting a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program in place to avoid locking up people with mental health and substance abuse issues. Palm Beach County, Fla., is going to use text message reminders to reduce arrests for failures to appear in court, as part of a wider effort to dismiss and prevent warrants.
Local jails are the front door to the justice system and are where reform efforts must be focused in order to be effective. Most people who land in prison for long-term sentencing land in a local, county or state-run jail first.
The private sector is constantly innovating, and so too must local governments reevaluate longstanding policies that have increased the tax burden without enhancing public safety. Smart reforms hold benefits for everyone.