Criminal Justice

More Cities Join Efforts to Steer People Away From Jail

Millions of dollars in grants will go to eight different jurisdictions to keep people away from jail.


Paul Hennessy/Polaris/Newscom

More and more cities are launching efforts to reduce their jail populations amid concerns that poor and minority residents face disastrous consequences when put behind bars to await trial.

As Reason reported in February, national momentum on criminal justice reform is moving to the states, rather than the federal government, and deep-pocketed donors are funding much of the shift. The MacArthur Foundation announced this week that it was awarding $11.3 million in grants to eight more jurisdictions as part of its "Safety and Justice Challenge" to reduce jail populations.

The MacArthur Foundation awarded "innovation fund" grants to 20 different cities earlier this year. The grants funded projects ranging from a new programs in Campbell County, Tennessee, designed to steer low-income single mothers away from the criminal justice system, to technology to track and analyze racial disparities in San Francisco jails.

The new crop of eight grants fund efforts to stem what Laurie Garduque, director for justice reform at the foundation, calls the "overuse and abuse" of jail, which she says leaves criminal defendants—and especially the poor and mentally ill—languishing behind bars simply because they can't afford to get out.

For instance, Multnomah County, Oregon, which includes Portland, received $2 million in grants to build a 21-bed day center for women, particularly black women, who are awaiting competency hearings in criminal court or have pending charges in mental health court. A 2015 report found black residents were overrepresented throughout Multnomah County's criminal justice system.

"We knew we needed to do something different," Abbey Stamp, executive director of Multnomah County's Local Public Safety Coordinating Council says in an interview with Reason. "Not necessarily from keeping women from going to jail, but we knew we needed better upstream intervention and sanctions for women before we got to the jail part."

A 2016 report by the Vera Institute and the MacArthur Foundation found that the number of women in local jails had skyrocketed over the past few decades, rising from less than 8,000 in 1970 to nearly 110,000.

But despite being the fastest growing segment of the population when it comes to incarceration, public policy around women in jails and prison has lagged behind. Part of the reason, the report's authors said, is "assembly line justice," where courts don't take into account individual circumstances such as poverty, trauma, mental illness, and substance abuse—all of which occur at shockingly higher rates among women in jail, and especially minority women in jail, than in the general population.

"We did a recent analysis that showed women were disproportionately sentenced to prison for drug and identity theft crimes," Stamp says. "The female population, although significantly smaller than male criminal justice population, tends to have much higher rates of trauma and much more needs than men."

Stamp also said Oregon is on the verge of needing to open a new women's prison. But because the current female prison population is so small, relative to the male population, the diversion of just a few women from the prison system here and there can have major impacts.

Other recipients include Los Angeles County, which is developing a tool to evaluate and release low-risk defendants and expanding its diversion programs. Palm Beach County, Florida, another grant recipient, will use text message reminders to reduce warrants and arrests for failures to appear in court.

Efforts to reduce or eliminate the use of cash bail has run into fierce resistance from the bail bond industry, which has filed lawsuits in New Jersey and New Mexico arguing the "risk assessment" tools used in place of traditional cash bail are in fact discriminatory and reduce public safety.

"You created and advanced a program that puts dangerous criminals on the streets to pick off all of your children," Beth Chapman, head of the Professional Bail Agents of the U.S. and wife of Duane "Dog the Bounty Hunter" Chapman, said of New Jersey's decision to eliminate cash bail.

But Garduque says that, despite some problems with transparency in early experiments using risk-assessment models to determine who should stay in jail while awaiting trial, the cash bond system simply leaves them in jail if they can't pay.

"Of course the bail bond industry has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo," she says, "but if you look at the research there's nothing that suggests money bail improves public safety. No doubt some tools are better than others, to the extent that they've been validated and evaluated, but if you put the right safeguards in place, you can monitor the tools to make sure they're not replicating the bias that's already in the system."