Local Jail Overcrowding: Challenges for the Public Manager

By Jarret, Joseph G. | Public Management, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Local Jail Overcrowding: Challenges for the Public Manager


Jarret, Joseph G., Public Management


As jail populations continue to grow exponentially, so do the fiscal challenges facing the local governments that are mandated to address this trend. Increasingly, elected bodies are looking to managers for solutions to this dilemma. Past practices had deferred the question to corrections or criminal justice personnel.

Why should local government managers worry about jail overcrowding? There are a good number of reasons, really, including but not limited to:

1. Adverse fiscal consequences for local government coffers because of the exorbitant costs inherent in the care, treatment, and housing of inmates.

2. Federal mandates that compel local governments to solve the problem, in case they suffer federal intervention through the appointment of special masters or through compulsory construction of new facilities.

3. Litigation costs that result from inmate lawsuits alleging civil rights violations, inadequate medical treatment, excessive use of force by corrections officers, and failure to protect vulnerable inmates from abuse by their cellmates.

4. Increased workers' compensation claims because of today's dangerously low corrections officer-to-inmate ratios.

All of the above factors translate into a dedicated revenue stream that siphons off monies that could be put to better use elsewhere, within and outside of the organization. For years, social scientists and criminologists have offered hypotheses that try to pinpoint the source(s) of these burgeoning jail populations. The most widely accepted and respected studies consistently hold that jail overcrowding stems from:

1. Mandatory sentencing guidelines that call for minimum, mandatory jail stays.

2. Erosion of judicial and probation-officer discretion.

3. Erosion of law enforcement discretion, in the form of mandatory arrest policies.

4. Underuse of innovative pretrial programs designed to release nonviolent offenders pending final case resolution.

5. Federal and state mandates that call for reduced jail populations yet lack the funds necessary to accomplish the reduction.

6. The overabundance of federal and state prisoners temporarily being housed in some local jails.

Allen R. Beck, Ph.D., in his celebrated work Jail Bloating: A Common but Unnecessary Cause of Jail Overcrowding suggests that although "jail bloating" is a common phenomenon, many public localities have pursued the construction of new jails as a solution without assessing if the demand for bed space could be reduced. In some instances, elected officials either don't know about the phenomenon of jail bloating, or they simply avoid the issue altogether, perceiving it as too politically sensitive. Says Dr. Beck, "Inefficient practices in the local criminal justice system contribute to and sustain jail bloating. Since a jail is located downstream in the criminal justice system's flow, the impacts of inefficiencies accumulate at that point."

Having recognized the problem, what initiatives can a manager offer as possible solutions? In my opinion, here are the first steps to take toward addressing jail overcrowding and its concomitant fiscal woes:

* Meet with all of the principals involved in the criminal justice system, including but not limited to the sheriff, chief of police, judiciary, public defender, prosecutor, pretrial services, and probation/parole divisions in an effort to identify the factors, policies, and systems that encourage overcrowding. …

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