How Jail Decarceration Benefits Communities

(Photo: Getty Images)

The Vera Institute of Justice, an NPPJ partner, released a toolkit to help local communities shrink jail populations.

By Matt Keyser
National Partnership for Pretrial Justice
Published: Nov. 22, 2021

Every year there are nearly 11 million bookings into city and county jails across the United States.

Many of those people locked behind bars, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, are detained pretrial—often for low-level charges and violations related to technical requirements of the system, such as failure to appear in court.

To help shrink this massive population of people cycling through our jails, Vera, an NPPJ partner, recently released a toolkit that provides a roadmap for jail decarceration for cities and counties. While it’s not meant to answer all questions about decarceration in a particular community, the toolkit offers recommended actions for both traditional system decision-makers—such as sheriffs who oversee county jails, judges who are tasked with making pretrial release decisions—as well as other community members who are committed to long-term reduction of the local jail population—such as advocates, social service providers, journalists, researchers, and more.

“The decentralized nature of local criminal legal systems […] means that local criminal legal system stakeholders can individually choose to make decisions that contribute to transformative changes within their communities, without necessarily waiting for broad consensus or formal legislative change,” Vera researchers noted.

We spoke with Vera’s Jennifer Peirce and Madeline Bailey who shared about how mass jail incarceration harms communities and how localities can decrease their jail populations and create change even when there is no uniform plan.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NPPJ: Before we dive into the toolkit, I want to ask you about a statistic you cite within. In the U.S., there were 10.7 million bookings into local jails in 2018 alone. That seems like an astronomical number.

Madeline Bailey: I think that number really gets to the scale of local jail incarceration in our country. When we look at jail population numbers on any single given day, we can learn, for example, that 200 people are in jail at that particular time. But what that number doesn’t tell us is the number of people from that community who have cycled in and out of that jail even on that one day. Looking at the full picture, it really hits home the deep impact of jail incarceration.

Jennifer Peirce: A lot of people are booked into jail and leave within a few hours. And so it might be easy to dismiss those cases as not a big deal. But if [jail detention] can still have an effect on someone’s life—if they miss work, miss picking up their child. More importantly, it also creates a formal connection of their name to the criminal justice system, and that can lead to a cascade of other effects later if they have additional contact with law enforcement.

NPPJ: What do you think that says about our criminal justice system?

MB: It shows that jails are often used as a frontline community response to a whole series of social issues, and that they are used to substitute resources for addressing poverty, mental health, addiction. It’s completely staggering the number of people who end up getting swept into our jails who are really just in need of services. When they go to jail instead, they will only face more compounding harms and difficulties.

JP: It is possible for a situation to occur where decision makers choose not to get to the point of officially booking someone in jail, and that’s an alternative that we want to lift up.

NPPJ: It’s interesting that we often talk about the criminal justice system as this large system that reaches so much of our society. But, as you all addressed in the toolkit, it’s really more of a system that’s based on individual jurisdictions where local leaders—from sheriffs and prosecutors—make life-changing decisions every day.

MB: You’re right. There are over 3,000 counties in the United States, and each one of them has some semblance of a criminal justice system. They all operate a little differently. And there’s a different appetite for change at each of those places. So when you think about trying to have a larger impact on our national jail incarceration rates, it can seem overwhelming. There are so many different systems. There are so many different people in power in those systems who need to make different choices. But really, we’re recognizing that there is interest in change and we’re trying to build momentum and give people resources to actually make those different decisions that can cumulatively have a wide national impact.

NPPJ: Obviously in a perfect world you’d have all the necessary decision makers on board to agree to a plan and move forward with that plan. But given the reality we’re in today and the polarized political climate, that’s not always possible. So what steps can these individual decision-makers—say, a sheriff, for example—make that could create small change now and perhaps serve as a larger stepping stone for larger change in the future?

JP: Right. This is the real world and not everyone is going to be on the same page with the same goals. It’s important to see what can be done without necessarily a full comprehensive plan with full agreement. And that’s another reason we emphasize using existing data to show concretely and empirically the trends in a given local county.

That data analysis is a way to unpack the reasons people are entering jail, to show how long they’re being held in jail, and show the pathways by which they are or aren’t being released. It’s very common to see failure-to-appear charges or probation violations or bonds that are set beyond people’s ability to pay. But in some places there are also idiosyncratic situations that are specific to that location.

NPPJ: I’m glad you mentioned the data, because I’m curious how important having concrete data is to drive decision-making when considering policy changes.

JP: I think it’s really important to have the administrative data from the jail records. Ideally, although this is more challenging from a data analysis point of view, the best option is to integrate that data with arrest records and court case records, because there’s important information in each of those. That’s important for the overall picture.

At the same time, and we try to explain this in the toolkit, the data that is entered into those systems is not perfect. It’s entered by humans, so there will be some gaps that are pretty common. An example is that jail staff sometimes misclassifies Latinx people as white in a jail record system, and therefore, the disparities of Latinx people in the jail system compared to white people tend to be undercounted.

So doing qualitative research with community groups and with people who have spent time in detention, and also through conversations and consultations and meetings, is a way to get context for these administrative data. Why is it so hard to pay bail—is bail being set too high? Why is it that a lot of people aren’t able to make their court appearances? You might clearly see that plenty of people are in jail because of failure to appear, but the data is not going to tell you why it was a struggle for them to make it to court.

And when you start asking people, they will tell you quite clearly that they didn’t have childcare or there wasn’t public transportation available. So we really need to involve people who have been affected by the system in the research, because they can tell us what’s behind those jail records numbers.

MB: And although data is incredibly valuable, we also emphasize in this toolkit that there are actions you can take to move towards decarceration even if you do not have access to data or the resources to analyze it.

NPPJ: In the toolkit you touch on a very important topic that a lot of America is reckoning with today: racial inequity in the criminal justice system. More specifically, how communities of color have been overpoliced and overrepresented in the system for decades.

MB: There’s a growing recognition of the harms arising from jail incarceration, and specifically for Black communities, Indigenous communities, and other communities of color. And especially in the last year, there have been louder calls for change to try and eliminate and repair these harms. With this toolkit, we wanted to put together a resource that would underscore the power of local decision-makers to disrupt jail incarceration in their local communities and respond to these calls for action. We are really trying to make this an accessible and empowering resource for people who are trying to start somewhere.

JP: Also our toolkit is encouraging different members of local communities—from the different decision-makers as well as regular citizens who want to engage in this issue—to understand how each piece of the system affects other pieces. Something that you hear often from jail administrators is that they don’t have control over who comes in or out of their jail—they’re just managing those who are there, which is technically true. And so it’s not really enough to just focus on people who are staffing the jail, but rather connecting the decisions by police officers, decisions by prosecutors and judges, as well as statutory requirements that may exist in the state and discretionary practices by different agencies. We need to look at all of this to figure out the pathways in and out of the jail and why racial disparities occur.

That’s one point we want to make when looking at jail decarceration with a racial equity lens. Almost across the board, we see people of color who are overrepresented in jails compared to their proportion of the local population, which is a really important point to look at in any given jurisdiction. But the goal is not that the jail population should demographically be similar to the general population—that wouldn’t necessarily be a success. We want the overall jail population to be smaller and jail to be used as a last resort.

NPPJ: The toolkit notes that in many big cities across the U.S. jail populations are on the decline. But that’s not equally true in their rural counterparts, where jail populations continue to rise. Why is that?

MB: Right. It’s shocking to see that these decreases in urban places are almost entirely offset in terms of the national data by growth in jail populations in more rural places. And what we’ve seen in our work is it’s not even necessarily an unwillingness to use alternatives to jail incarceration for these lower-level type charges. In some rural areas where there are fewer advocacy organizations and fewer community resources available, it can seem really hard to fit into reform templates that are used in urban places. And so in this toolkit, we try to break down all of the different options and make them accessible to localities of all sizes. 

NPPJ: Okay, we’ve discussed the harms of the reliance on jail incarceration and how decision-makers can get involved in implementing changes. I have one last question for you. In what ways does jail decarceration benefit communities as a whole?  

JP: One way is that public resources can be reallocated away from jails toward other priority services. Vera has a report that was created by our colleagues called “What Jails Cost” that breaks down the cost of incarceration. This report explains how difficult it is to figure out what funding is going into jail. But one of the headlines they cite is nationally jails cost taxpayers $25 billion per year. Billion—with a B. And when you break it down per county, it often is a significant portion of local budgets. And when you look at the cost to detain a person per night, that’s money that could be spent on prevention services, on mental health services, on substance abuse treatment that isn’t in a detention setting. More broadly, this shift in focus away from using jails as a catch-all response to social problems can also change how communities think about how people and organizations can be supportive rather than punitive toward their neighbors.

MB: When you think about the opportunities for what could be done with this money elsewhere in the community, it’s really powerful. How much of our local resources are dedicated to things like jailing people who simply didn’t comply with very technical requirements of the court process? What could happen if we made the decision not to incarcerate those people, and to move that money into social services, schools, or healthcare? There are so many actions that communities can take, and we are hopeful that our resource can help them take those first steps.