Academic journal article The Future of Children

Jails and Local Justice System Reform: Overview and Recommendations

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Jails and Local Justice System Reform: Overview and Recommendations

Article excerpt

Over the past 45 years, the US prison population grew from about 200,000 to more than two million--an increase characterized as "historically unprecedented and internationally unique." (1) The social toll of America's system of mass incarceration has been staggering. Imprisonment reduces future earnings and job opportunities, limits civic participation, contributes to mental and physical health problems, destabilizes families, and further disadvantages economically marginalized communities. The fiscal costs of penal expansion have also been burdensome. Corrections spending accounts for an increasing share of government budgets, taking funds away from education, health care, and other services. Despite these human and economic costs, incarceration has done little to reduce crime and improve public safety. (2) Accordingly, a political consensus is emerging that we need strategies to downsize the number of people housed in state and federal prisons. Yet local jails are often missing from discussions of our nation's overreliance on incarceration. Given that jails represent a huge portion of the growth in incarceration, that oversight is shocking.

As the gateway to the criminal justice system, jails are a ubiquitous part of the American criminal justice experience. Remarkably, although the daily population of prisons outnumbers the jail population, nearly 18 times as many people are admitted to jails annually. (3) On any given day, roughly 730,000 people are held in more than 3,000 jails across the country; of these, the majority are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime. (4) That includes nearly 4,000 juveniles confined in adult jails. An additional 34,000 youth are housed in more than 900 juvenile detention centers and correctional facilities nationwide. (5) The overuse of jails exacts a toll like that of prisons on individuals, families, and communities, exacerbating inequalities across social, economic, and political lines. Paying for jails has also overwhelmed many communities. Growing jail populations have increased personnel and operational costs, in addition to the costs associated with building new facilities. Yet jails remain largely ignored by researchers and relatively misunderstood by the general public.

Despite similarities in the social consequences and economic burden of jail and prison incarceration, jails differ from prisons in many ways, and it's important to understand these differences in order to guide policy. We begin by describing contemporary US jails, including the varied nature of their operations and facilities, inmate populations, and conditions of confinement. Next, we suggest future directions for policy. In particular, we assess pretrial release practices and discuss alternatives to pretrial detention for juveniles and adults awaiting trial. We also consider the potential for reform among those convicted and serving time in local jails. Recognizing that people who cycle in and out of our nation's jails are disproportionately struggling with poverty, poor health, mental illness, and substance abuse, we discuss how the criminal justice system can work with local service providers to more effectively meet the needs of this population and reduce justice system inequality.

We also suggest that it's unlikely the US jail and prison populations can be cut in tandem. Prison downsizing almost necessarily means transferring authority for some convicted felons from the state to the county level. In the long term, counties would be expected to reduce their jail populations by connecting people to the programming and services they need, and by investing in rehabilitation and prisoner reentry. Yet many counties are ill equipped to manage the influx of prisoners (and parolees), and thus we can expect these shifts to further strain local communities. Drawing on examples of how decisions to downsize at the state and federal levels have affected local justice systems, we emphasize that researchers and policy makers should carefully consider the role of local jails as they pursue broad-based criminal justice reform. …

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