The Justice System Assessment and Jail Crowding

By Zandi, Fran | Corrections Today, February 2006 | Go to article overview

The Justice System Assessment and Jail Crowding


Zandi, Fran, Corrections Today


Space is an expensive commodity and in today's criminal justice environment, jail beds are no exception. At midyear 2004, the number of individuals held in jails nationwide was 713,990. This number includes the 19,132 beds added during the 12 months ending June 30, 2004. More important, at midyear 2004, 94 percent of all available bed space in the more than 3,000 jails nationwide was occupied, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.(1)

Jails are not self-contained units. They are an integral part of a much larger criminal justice system, a system that creates much of the demand for more jail space. Jail crowding is a serious issue that diminishes the safety of jail staff, inmates and the community. Adding additional bed space, replacing inadequate facilities and building more jails are viable solutions. However, all three solutions bear a significant cost. Funding authorities, sheriffs and communities do not undertake a jail design process, new or refurbished, lightly.

Jails are complex operations that experience continuous population turnover. Managing the peaks and valleys of a dynamic population is a necessary process for jail officials working in facilities with or without sufficient bed space. Many of the nation's 3,516 jails will at some point face the challenge of managing an inmate population that taxes their capacity to operate safely and securely without adding new jail beds or constructing a new facility.

The Justice System Assessment

Jurisdictions frequently contact the National Institute of Corrections for technical assistance because a jail is crowded. Jail officials alone cannot alleviate jail crowding. Rather, they must work in unison with other criminal justice partners and with the community to remedy the situation. Since 1977, NIC has provided technical assistance to state and local jails to help funding authorities and those responsible for managing jail operations become familiar with the new jail planning process. The Justice System Assessment (JSA) protocol was developed after many years of working with jurisdictions to alleviate jail crowding. The protocol is aimed at encouraging stakeholders to think strategically about managing insufficient bed space by analyzing the components (e.g., judicial, prosecutor's office, etc.) of a jurisdiction's criminal justice system. This analysis includes key decision points within a jurisdiction's criminal justice system and focuses on the process itself rather than issues that may be unique to a particular agency. The seven key justice system decision points are the decision to arrest, the decision to detain pretrial, the decision to release from pretrial detention, the decision to prosecute, the decision to adjudicate, the decision to sentence, and the decision to modify the sentence. (2)

The jail itself is one part, albeit a highly visible part, of the much larger criminal justice system. Other stakeholders with a role in a well-run criminal justice system are asked to participate in the assessment. Working in a collaborative environment, stakeholders examine policies at each of the seven key points and explore alternatives that will increase the efficiency of the overall system. These stakeholders include: presiding judge (each level of court); court administrator; magistrates; district attorney/county prosecutor; public defender/defense bar member; sheriff/chief deputy/jail administrator/jail information system services/population management staff; criminal justice planning staff; other law enforcement agency representatives such as state police, fish and game, federal, municipal; pretrial services, probation and community corrections; county board including commissioners, county administrator, budget director, legal counsel and risk manager; city manager/mayor/council person; inspection entities including fire/health/state jail standards; service providers such as mental health, medical and assistance programs; and community leaders. …

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