Vera Institute of Justice | A Toolkit for Jail Decarceration in Your…

A Toolkit for Jail Decarceration in Your Community

In recent years, there has been growing consensus that jail incarceration is harmful and unnecessary because it causes damage to people’s stability and health and does not meaningfully reduce crime and violence. In fact, research shows that pretrial detention in jail can increase a person’s likelihood of harsher prison sentences and future system involvement.See generally Christopher M. Campbell, Ryan M. Labrecque, Michael Weinerman et al., “Gauging Detention Dosage: Assessing the Impact of Pretrial Detention on Sentencing Outcomes Using Propensity Score Modeling,” Journal of Criminal Justice 70 (2020), Article 101719; Léon Digard and Elizabeth Swavola, Justice Denied: The Harmful and Lasting Effects of Pretrial Detention (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2019), https://perma.cc/47NM-9ENL; and Paul Heaton, Sandra Mayson, and Megan Stevenson, “The Downstream Consequences of Misdemeanor Pretrial Detention,” Stanford Law Review 69 (2017), 711-794, https://perma.cc/824L-RG6M. Calls for new approaches to community safety and justice have risen from a broad range of voices, including from people directly impacted by the criminal legal system, community organizers, lawyers, government leaders, journalists, and more. Places that have heeded demands for change are beginning to see significant reductions in jail populations, showing that decarceration at the local level is possible when criminal legal system stakeholders make different choices.

The impact of jail decarceration efforts can be seen in the national data: After nearly four decades of dramatic jail population growth, the total U.S. jail population gradually dropped from a high of 785,533 in 2008 to 758,420 in 2019.Jacob Kang-Brown, Oliver Hinds, Eital Schattner-Elmaleh, and James Wallace-Lee, People in Jail 2019 (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2019), https://perma.cc/7HB9-Y8UC. This is a positive shift, but jail incarceration still affects many people: in 2018, there were more than 10.7 million bookings into local jails in the United States. Zhen Zeng, Jail Inmates in 2018 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2020), 1-2, https://perma.cc/TY3R-SEMF.

But within this national trend are two opposing trends: As urban jail populations declined, many smaller cities and rural places have expanded their carceral footprint.Jacob Kang-Brown and Ram Subramanian, Out of Sight: The Growth of Jails in Rural America (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, June 2017), 12, https://perma.cc/5QZQ-UWDN. Put differently, the progress that big cities have made in decreasing their jail populations has been almost fully offset by the jail population increase in other communities. (Although many jails decreased their populations during the COVID-19 pandemic in the first part of 2020, the numbers began to rise again in late 2020.On 2020 trends, see Jacob Kang-Brown, Chase Montagnet, and Jasmine Heiss, People in Jail and Prison in 2020 (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2021), https://perma.cc/8L5F-Z4T5. ) This means that national jail incarceration numbers remain stubbornly steady, despite some places’ reform efforts.

Why is jail decarceration playing out so differently in different places?

Because the U.S. criminal legal system is a combination of thousands of city and county systems that operate differently, appetite and willingness for change can vary widely from place to place, even among places bound by the same state laws. It also means that for widespread change to occur, many different local systems must individually enact new policies and practices.

Moreover, because no one stakeholder has absolute control over every facet of the local criminal legal system, the independent decisions of many different agencies and people all collectively contribute to who in the community ends up in jail.John Wooldredge, James Frank, Natalie Goulette, and Lawrence Travis III, “Is the Impact of Cumulative Disadvantage on Sentencing Greater for Black Defendants?” Criminology & Public Policy 14, no. 2 (2015), 187-223. As a result, it can be difficult to hold any one system stakeholder accountable when the jail population grows. Additionally, it can be difficult to determine the exact policies that are contributing most to a community’s jail growth and where the most impactful changes could be made.

However, the decentralized nature of local criminal legal systems also means that local criminal legal system stakeholders can individually choose to make decisions that contribute to transformative change within their communities, without necessarily waiting for broad consensus or formal legislative change. And because each local system is just one of thousands, there are many examples of jail decarceration work from which to learn.

Most importantly, many different people in different roles throughout the community can play an important part in working toward decarceration, no matter how small or large the jurisdiction. This toolkit defines those roles and highlights steps that anyone in a community—no matter what their role—can take to better understand their local system and help drive change. Not only can your efforts make your community a safer and more just place, but when combined with the work of other communities across the United States, they will also have a decisive impact on national efforts to end mass incarceration.

Read the Technical Guide to Jail Data Analysis

No matter what your role in your local criminal legal system is, it’s important to understand the factors that impact the use of jail and the system in your community with geographic and historical context. Meaningful change is often the result of thoughtful and unified efforts from people who are not afraid to ask difficult questions. Powerful and informed jail decarceration work requires centering racial justice and gender equity, understanding your community’s local history, and amplifying the voices of local experts and impacted communities. Below, you will find additional resources to help you understand the problems surrounding jail incarceration as you aim to bring about change within your community.

Center racial justice and gender equity.

A complete analysis of a local criminal legal system requires prioritizing racial justice and gender equity, both of which are essential to unraveling the full impact of criminalization, incarceration, and community supervision (probation and parole) on communities. Longstanding, systemic underfunding of care and services in low-income communities of color coupled with higher rates of policing and criminalization has resulted in racial and ethnic disparities at every stage of the criminal legal system, leaving people of color disproportionately incarcerated in local jails and harmed by the accompanying negative downstream consequences, such as increased barriers to securing stable employment, housing, and health care.Digard and Swavola, Justice Denied, 2019; Megan C. Kurlychek and Brian D. Johnson, “Cumulative Disadvantage in the American Criminal Justice System,” Annual Review of Criminology 2, no. 1 (2019), 291-319; and John Wooldredge, James Frank et al., “Is the Impact of Cumulative Disadvantage on Sentencing Greater for Black Defendants?,” Criminology & Public Policy 14, no. 2 (2015), 187-223. Gender disparities also permeate the system: women detained in local jails are the fastest-growing group of people in confinement and tend to enter jail due to low-level charges related to coping with poverty.Elizabeth Swavola, Kristine Riley, and Ram Subramanian, Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2016), https://perma.cc/3JWF-VQ7V.

Tools:

Center communities that have been directly impacted by the local criminal legal system.

Successful movements for justice have often been led by people who are directly impacted by a systemic injustice. If you do not have firsthand experience with incarceration, you should prioritize offering space and involvement in your efforts to people who do. People impacted by the criminal legal system deeply understand the problems inherent in it and have solutions for dealing with harm in healthier ways. To make tangible lasting change, their perspectives must be central to the reform process.

Tools:

  • If you seek to center the voices of people who have been impacted by the criminal legal system—in public campaigns or community events or elsewhere—ensure that you work collaboratively to identify and provide necessary supports, including proper compensation, media and communications training, and help with coordination and logistics related to events.
  • Read and amplify the writings, work, and personal narratives of both formerly and currently incarcerated people: for example, women’s voices, young men and women creating culture change inside prisons and jails, and transgender people who have been incarcerated.
  • Use intentional and humanizing language when referring to people impacted by the criminal legal system. Use person-first language such as “person who is incarcerated,” as opposed to “felon,” “convict,” or “inmate.”

Elevate local history.

Understanding local history will inform the larger story of jail and justice in your community. Although acknowledging past harms may result in uncomfortable conversations, this discomfort is critical to examining the truths within your community and creating a path forward. Whether your community is deciding whether or not to build a new jail, or whom to elect to certain positions of power, better understanding your community’s past can help you to move toward a healthier and more equitable future.

Tools:

  • Interview local historians and ask questions about your community’s historical approaches to poverty, race, and justice. What role have past policies and approaches played in driving jail incarceration in your community?
  • Confront the history of racial terror in your community. Consult newspaper archives to critically examine the way local and national incidents of racial terror have been covered by your local media over time. Review national databases such as the map of confirmed racial terror lynchings from 1877 to 1950 compiled by EJI. Understand that this violence has not ended and draw connections to present-day racialized violence.
  • Study the history of Native Americans and confront the impact of colonialism and Native American genocide in your region. Consider how violence and trauma over several generations, often abetted by law enforcement, contributes to the disproportionate incarceration of Native Americans today.Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2014).

Center local needs and community strengths.

Understanding and centering needs specific to your community is critical to create tailored and effective policy solutions. Not only is it important to understand how local issues such as poverty, transportation scarcity, and lack of access to services present themselves, it is also important to know your community’s strengths. There are almost always local resources that can help address community problems; knowing what those are and how to elevate and strengthen those resources can provide a useful place to start.

Tools:

  • Reach out to local social service providers (for example, organizations that offer mental health care, housing support, substance use treatment, etc.) and learn about what other resources exist in your community.
  • Interview public defenders or defense attorneys in your community and learn more about the ways they fight for justice from within the system.
  • Review minutes from recent county council meetings to better understand local decision-making processes related to criminal justice in the community. For instance, whose voices are represented in these discussions? How are potential solutions developed?

List the key questions.

With all of this in mind, determine the questions you would like to answer about your local jail and criminal legal system. Given the decentralized nature of the system, it can be surprising how little any given person, no matter their position in the community, knows about who typically is in jail. Asking questions like these can help determine where gaps in knowledge exist and pave the way toward determining better next steps.

For example: Who is in the jail? On what charges were they booked into jail? How long have they been in jail? How much does the county spend on jail incarceration? What can be done differently? Will the proposed changes actually reduce the reach of incarceration and supervision in the community?


Although every jurisdiction is different and your decarceration strategies will vary based on your role and resources, the following steps can help guide you along the path to decarceration in your community.

There is no one person in the community who makes all the decisions relating to the local criminal legal system. Instead, the decisions of law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, probation officers, county councils, and jail administrators all add up to determine which community members are incarcerated. But the power to enact change doesn’t start or end with the government actors who have formal purview over certain operations. Everyone in the community should understand what unique power they wield to advocate for decarceration and determine how to use their position to best achieve change.

  • Community organizers. Community-based organizers and advocacy groups have the power to lead campaigns and build public pressure for change that is directed at local decision makers. They can request data from system actors to build accountability and highlight opportunities for reform, demand better of their local elected representatives, and educate others in the community about injustices that are perpetrated by the local system. They can also engage in regular court watching to monitor a particular problem or the implementation of a solution, attend public meetings focusing on criminal legal system issues, or bring in state or national reform organizations for input and publicity. They can also mobilize and organize community residents to support or oppose criminal legal system issues on the local ballot.
  • Journalists. Reporters and journalists have the power to shape public opinion about the local criminal legal system. They decide what stories to tell, how to investigate those stories, and what angle their stories will take. They play a critical role in shining a light on local injustice, building pressure for local system actors to take certain policy actions, and holding local actors accountable for their decisions. Journalists also have the power to influence how the larger community views system-impacted people by pushing their newsrooms to use dignifying language, avoid using photos or language that play into the presumption of guilt for marginalized groups, and involve perspectives of people who have been impacted by the local system in local stories when possible.See generally Lawrence Bartley, Lisette Bamenga, Adria Watson et al., The Language Project, edited by Akiba Solomon (New York: The Marshall Project, 2021), https://www.themarshallproject.org/2021/04/12/the-language-project.
  • Judges. Judicial officers have enormous power within local systems. They decide who gets released from or detained in jail pretrial, who must pay in order to secure their freedom and how much, and the restrictiveness of pretrial release or probation terms. They also determine when to issue bench warrants, including when certain terms of pretrial release are not met, such as when someone fails to appear for court. In some cases, judges make determinations of guilt, and almost always, judges determine the sentence someone receives after they are convicted. Chief judges may also issue standing orders related to court or case administration that other judges must follow, including on issues such as making bail determinations and issuing warrants.
  • Law enforcement. Local law enforcement agencies, such as police and sheriff’s departments, decide, within the confines of the law, who gets stopped, who gets arrested, whether or not they are booked into jail, and what charges are recommended for prosecution. State law determines the scope of local law enforcement authority to issue citations in lieu of arrest, but, although state law often allows broad use of citations, law enforcement authorities might formally adopt only a subset of those uses as departmental policy, typically with many exceptions.
  • Local legislators and city and county executives. Local officials determine a community’s spending priorities, make funding decisions for local system agencies, fund community services that can help community members avoid legal system entanglement, and enact or repeal local policies. For example, local county councils can enact or repeal ordinances that criminalize life-sustaining behaviors associated with poverty, such as ordinances banning sitting or sleeping outside, loitering, or soliciting or receiving help.Madeline Bailey, Erica Crew, and Madz Reeve, No Access to Justice: Breaking the Cycle of Homelessness and Jail (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2020), https://perma.cc/J353-MJ2U.
  • Probation officers. Probation agencies determine what is required for people to comply with probation terms, when to report to the court that someone has violated their probation terms, when to recommend someone for termination of probation, and what fees someone under supervision must pay to remain in compliance. In many states, local courts contract with private companies to handle supervision. The payments to those companies are contingent on how many people are under supervision; given that companies can decide when to recommend early termination of supervision or when to report violations, this creates problematic incentives for keeping a person on probation.
  • Prosecutors. City and county prosecutors, sometimes called district, city, or state’s attorneys, decide what crimes are prosecuted, who gets prosecuted, and who is offered diversion in lieu of prosecution. They also make bail recommendations to the court, control most of the evidence in a case, offer plea bargains, and make sentencing recommendations to the court. Lead prosecutors have the authority to adopt office declination policies—through which they publicly commit to not prosecute certain categories of charges—and have the ability to make powerful statements of support for policy changes falling under other agencies’ discretion, such as bail policies issued by the court or citation in lieu of arrest policies issued by law enforcement.
  • Public defenders. County or state public defender offices are positioned to provide powerful frontline evidence of the many ways in which people who experience poverty, behavioral health challenges, or other forms of social and personal trauma are disadvantaged within local criminal legal systems. Public defenders and court-appointed defense attorneys can speak to the culture and practices of prosecutors’ offices and law enforcement and assist in holding those agencies accountable for promised changes. Public defenders can advocate for referring people to diversion opportunities and sharing stories of clients who have been successful in diversion or who have experienced harms within the system.
  • Researchers. Local researchers and academics can request and analyze data from agencies in nearby cities and counties, conduct interviews with system-impacted people, draw conclusions from research that support the need for changes to the local criminal legal system, and use that research to point to evidence-based policy solutions. They can testify before local or state legislatures, issue reports and articles that community advocacy groups can use to support their campaigns, and provide data analysis and policy expertise to local system actors. Researchers often can develop a rapport with system actors that allows them to build the case for change from a neutral perspective.
  • Sheriffs and jail administrators. Local jail administrators—often, but not always, the sheriff’s office—are tasked with staffing local jail facilities, collecting and maintaining data on jail bookings and operations, and coordinating operations and services within the jail and with other agencies, such as courts and state departments of corrections. They have the power to connect and build relationships with local service providers, advocate for local decarceration policies that will result in fewer people in jail, and speak out against expansion of local jail capacity. Sheriffs also have the authority to enter into or end jail-bed rental agreements with other counties, state departments of corrections, and federal agencies. Some jail administrators have implemented significant changes to conditions and culture inside the jail. They typically have rapport with local law enforcement officials and can help illustrate the harmful impact of punitive enforcement policies on the jail and larger community.
  • State legislators. Legislators at the state level write the state criminal code and enact state-level policy on a wide range of criminal legal system issues. They have the authority to take actions such as adopting statewide bail reform, reclassifying categories of state criminal charges, scaling back state sentencing laws, and ensuring that counties have the guidance and resources to effectively implement state-level changes.
  • System-impacted people. People who have experienced the local criminal legal system firsthand have the unique power to illuminate injustices within the system that others may not clearly see. They can provide critical perspectives and expertise in policy discussions, raise awareness of any unintended consequences that might arise from proposed reforms, and hold community advocacy organizations accountable for demanding necessary change.

Due to the fragmented nature of local criminal legal systems, decarceration efforts will be most effective when people from multiple parts of the system and community are working together for change. Although the process for establishing collaborations and partnerships will vary based on your specific goal, your own role in the community, and the politics of your jurisdiction, taking one or more of the following steps will give others the opportunity to engage with your work.

  • Identify others in the community who are already engaged in decarceration work. At the outset of your work, reach out to others in the community and learn who is already working on these issues locally—even if “jail” or “criminal justice” isn’t explicitly in their description. Who are the key experts, leaders, or organizers working in the space? Share your motivations for learning more about the limitations of the local system and pushing for policy changes and ask how you can support their work. Identify shared priorities and offer opportunities for alignment or collaboration. Take special care to ensure that you are reaching community members who have personally been impacted by the local system.
  • Commit to sharing what you learn. Make clear from the beginning that you will share any data analysis and policy conclusions that come out of your process with other interested people or agencies within your jurisdiction. Presenting your work as a potential resource for other system actors can help negate any skepticism that might arise out of concerns related to funding or efficacy of alternatives.
  • Identify local champions for change. Especially in places where some system actors may be politically opposed to reforms, it is helpful to have a motivating change agent driving the process who possesses both political capital and the ability to unify other stakeholders under a common purpose. Champions might be system actors such as a prosecutor who was recently elected on a reform platform, a sympathetic judge, a passionate community leader, or a well-connected philanthropist.
  • Seek out missing perspectives. Prioritize obtaining perspectives that may be different from yours. Not only will doing so make collaboration more likely, it will also help you identify potential concerns that you may need to be sensitive to as you form policy proposals.
  • Convene a working group or coalition if there isn’t one already. Communities that convene an engaged group of diverse system actors and community members under a well-defined and documented shared vision are better positioned to successfully implement meaningful and lasting change. When political tensions arise, the group can refer back to their shared commitment to reducing the jail population. There is also power in numbers; working as a coalition can generate pressure and motivation to overcome challenges and continue working for change. Invite other system actors, impacted people, community advocates, journalists, local researchers or academics, service providers, and local government representatives—the more participation, the better. Create shared goals and clear benchmarks for change.

To build a common understanding of a problem, its causes, and the potential impacts of various options for change, data is essential. Most local criminal legal system data at the county level is held by public institutions that have a duty to make that data transparent and accessible to local stakeholders (with appropriate protections for confidentiality).

Becoming familiar with available data and options for using it to answer different questions about local justice systems is not just the domain of professional researchers, data analysts, or people working inside government. Although some of the detailed steps in data analysis might be beyond the skillset of many people, everyone can understand what the data shows about local trends. Information alone does not usually change policies, laws, or practices, but it is a crucial component to bolster arguments about the current problem and proposed solutions.

Typically, administrative (official) data from local criminal legal system agencies is central to an analysis of jail populations. The primary focus is on jail data, but data from other government and non-government agencies can also be relevant. The goal of this section is to walk through how to think about the questions you want to answer, what data might help you answer those questions, and the possibilities and limitations of different types of data. Vera’s Technical Guide to Jail Population Data is an in-depth resource with suggestions for ways to access jail data and an explanation of the categories and types of data in a typical jail data system and what they mean in plain language. The Technical Guide also provides information on how to do some basic organizing and analyzing of standard jail data and how to use the findings. Some findings are helpful to understand the current jail population and the top contributing factors to it, while others are helpful to think through the likely effects of specific policy alternatives that may be proposed as solutions.

  • Clarify the questions you want to answer. It is important to clearly list the questions you are hoping the data will answer and to refine them as you figure out what data is actually available. Usually, the overarching questions of interest are why are people ending up in jail, and why do they stay? Getting even more specific with your questions is helpful to build your analysis.
    • Examining the status quo.
      One set of questions has to do with describing the current situation: How many people are in jail? How do jail populations vary over time? How long do people stay in jail? What are the legal characteristics of people in jail (pretrial, sentenced, probation violations)? What are the most common charges that people are booked into jail for? Which law enforcement agencies book people into jail? How many people are in jail because of inability to pay bail? How many people are in jail because of technical violations of their bail or probation?
    • Measuring disparities.
      Another set of questions has to do with looking at differences across groups of people: Are some races, genders, ages, or other groups booked into the jail at higher rates than others? Do some groups stay in jail longer? Are some groups more likely than others to face bail amounts they cannot pay? Are some groups more likely to be diverted from jail?
    • Modeling policy impacts.
      A further set of questions has to do with estimating what might happen in the future if specific changes to policy were put into place: If the county implements an automatic pretrial release policy for certain charges, how might this affect the jail population? How would it affect specific subgroups within the jail population? If the county stopped charging people for certain low-level offenses, how much might this reduce the jail population? How would it affect each subgroup of people in jail?
    • Monitoring progress.
      Finally, some questions have to do with assessing the effects of policy changes like the ones listed above: How did a change in policing practice—such as no longer arresting people for ordinance charges like sleeping in public spaces—affect jail population trends?
  • Obtain, clean, and analyze jail administrative data. Jail administrative data refers to the formal records that a jail keeps. Most jails have an electronic database that staff use to record information when a person is admitted into the jail, at various points during their stay, and on release. These are public records and, with appropriate protections for privacy of the personal information of incarcerated people, should be accessible to local citizens. There are various approaches to obtaining and distributing jail administrative data that you can explore in your jurisdiction. See the Technical Guide for more details.

    Jail data on its own tells a very narrow story. In order to put the data from the jail into local context, it is helpful to collect as much other local data as possible to gain a more complete picture of the factors that increase jail population in your community. You can start by looking for county and/or state data in common, publicly available data sources. Possible sources include census data, local budget data, police/crime data, and public health data. For data on arrest patterns, one place to start is Vera’s Arrest Trends dataset.

    Review the Technical Guide to Jail Population Data for more ways to obtain, clean, and analyze jail administrative data.
  • Collect and analyze qualitative data. So far, this toolkit has focused on how to use official data from local government sources. This data is almost always quantitative (numerical). It is crucial to understand trends, but that does not tell the full story of what is happening or how a situation came to be. Also, official data is not fixed or perfect: It is generated by humans working within complex institutions, which means mistakes or bias are not only possible but likely. For example, there is little consistency or clarity in how criminal legal system agencies track experiences of Latinx people, as some systems have few categories for race/ethnicity.Sarah Eppler-Epstein, Annie Gurvis, and Ryan King, “The Alarming Lack of Data on Latinos in the Criminal Justice System” (Urban Institute, December 2016), http://urbn.is/cjdata. Understanding the processes and assumptions behind the official data helps put it in context.

    Qualitative data focuses on the experiences of people and groups, and it can provide a deeper understanding of how to address overuse of jails and local criminal legal systems. A “mixed methods” approach—using quantitative administrative data and qualitative research data—will strengthen the overall analysis by combining the power of numerical trend analysis with the nuance and detail of what people say about their own lived experiences.

    In some cases, partnering with a research organization or local university to do qualitative data collection is advisable. This organization can help clarify research questions, determine what kinds of data collection methods to use and whom to involve, and analyze the findings in a systematic way. This organization will also have experience in how to protect people’s privacy and confidentiality when collecting and analyzing data, as talking about criminal legal system involvement can be sensitive and involve certain risks.

Qualitative questions and methods

Some general questions that are better suited for qualitative research include

  • How do people who are arrested or detained in this county experience the local justice system?
  • How do people who are arrested or detained perceive the fairness, respect, and transparency of treatment by local institutions?
  • How do people working in local institutions perceive the goals, fairness, equity, and/or effectiveness of current policies and practices?
  • What obstacles do people face at various stages of the system, from police contact to release from jail?
  • What are the narratives that are most prevalent in the local community about the causes of crime, the impacts of jail, and/or other alternative approaches?

Qualitative research requires thoughtful design to ensure that the data collection tools are appropriate and feasible. Some common data collection methods include

  • interviews and/or focus groups of formerly and currently incarcerated people, system actors, service providers, community advocates, and elected officials;
  • court watching (both virtually and in person); and
  • observations of community events, forums, or services related to criminal legal system issues.

You may also consider a system-mapping exercise that will allow you to chart the course of local system operations from the point of arrest through post-conviction supervision. This involves facilitating a multi-stakeholder discussion in which people working in different parts of the local system and service providers chart out and explain what agencies, decisions, criteria, and options operate at each stage of the criminal legal system process. Doing this type of exercise not only provides an opportunity for people who work in and with the system to convene and collaborate, it can also help flag issues or possible areas for solutions. A related strategy is the Sequential Intercept Model, which is a similar process but with a tight focus on mental health and substance use issues.

  • Explore data transparency options. Once your team has determined the central questions and findings, it is helpful to create a way to share the findings with your community. Some common approaches for data visualization include the following:
    • Public dashboards.
      These are websites that present graphic representations of key data points, with varying levels of detail. Some offer the ability to update numbers as new data comes in. Sometimes they are hosted on the website of a county agency—such as the sheriff’s office or the county criminal legal system committee—while other times they are on the website of a nongovernmental or research organization working with the data. One common software is called Tableau, but there are many other options. For example, Hays County, Texas, has a dashboard that shows different aspects of jail population characteristics and numbers.
    • Infographic publications or factsheets.
      These are digital and print publications, typically under four pages, that include visualizations of key findings with some explanatory text and citations. Although these publications do not usually allow for ongoing updating of data, they can be very helpful to present a set of findings at a particular juncture and share them widely with many stakeholders. For example, Vera has produced factsheets for state-level and county-level data, in different formats.
    • Data transparency.
      Public data visualization helps to build transparency and community awareness and understanding of findings. A further step in data transparency is to provide the dataset (with any personal identifying information stripped out) so that people can download it and do their own analyses. Some counties have developed principles or guidelines for data transparency—for all local government data, not just jail data—to ensure access and clarity.

Depending on the type and scope of data you are able to collect, you should be able to determine the primary reasons that people end up in your local jail. These are the “drivers” of your local jail population. Your analyses will allow you to demonstrate which drivers are contributing most to jail population numbers, as well as which drivers have less of an effect. Understanding your local jail’s principal population drivers can help you to concentrate your efforts on policy changes that will have the greatest impact and can inform your arguments to other system actors or community advocates. Every jurisdiction will face unique issues, but below are some of the common trends in local jail populations that Vera researchers have observed in localities of various sizes across the country.

  • Racial disparities in the jail population. Although not exactly a “driver” of local jail populations, racial disparities in the jail population should immediately raise major concerns across all areas of the local system. When there is an overrepresentation of a certain racial or ethnic group in the local system, this points to longstanding problems that may not be adequately addressed by focusing on jail population reduction alone. Eliminating racial disparities requires a conscious and deliberate framework to ensure that new policy changes do not inadvertently retain or exacerbate existing disparities.
  • High pretrial incarceration rates. The historical purpose of bail was to facilitate the release of people pending trial, with conditions to ensure their appearance in court.Digard and Swavola, Justice Denied, 2019, 1. Over time, many counties have started to treat pretrial incarceration as the norm and to order payment of money bail in nearly all cases. Although there are some narrow reasons to hold certain people in jail pretrial, such as risk of flight or threat to public safety, a significant portion of people in pretrial detention are there because they are unable to pay the bail that has been set by the judge. One study estimates that 60 percent of people in jail nationwide are on pretrial detention, and close to a third of those are held due to inability to pay bail. John Mathews and Felipe Curiel, “Criminal Justice Debt Problems,” American Bar Association, November 30, 2019, https://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/human_rights_magazine_home/economic-justice/criminal-justice-debt-problems/. High pretrial incarceration rates suggest that a county has an overreliance on money bail and a lack of alternatives to arrest and detention.
  • People in jail on low bond amounts. Long stays in jail on low bond amounts indicate that people are being held in jail pretrial simply because they are too poor to pay for their release. This points to a county’s failure to include meaningful assessments of ability to pay during bail hearings, as well as the use of money bail in lieu of other forms of pretrial release for lower level charges.
  • Arrests on warrants. Warrants can lead to jail population challenges because they require law enforcement to make an arrest and do not leave room for any additional discretion. This can drive up admissions to local jails.
    • Failure to appear warrants. Many courts immediately issue warrants for failure to appear if someone who is released pretrial fails to appear for a required court date. When a lot of people are in jail for failure to appear, this points to problems with communication regarding required court appearances, lack of resources to assist people in overcoming challenges in getting to court, or lack of mechanisms that allow people to reschedule their court dates.
    • Failure to pay warrants. Some courts issue warrants for nonpayment of fines and fees. When a significant number of people are in jail for nonpayment, this suggests that the jurisdiction has onerous policies of charging for the administration of justice, a lack of consideration for a person’s ability to pay fines and fees, and an unnecessary devotion of community resources toward jailing people who cannot afford comparatively small amounts of money.
  • High admissions for certain charge categories. Localities should take note when one of the following charge categories is prevalent in their jail, especially when these categories show up frequently as the sole or most serious charge for a booking.
    • Charges related to substance use and possession: This indicates that many people in jail have treatment needs that will be better served in the community.
    • Municipal ordinance violations: This often points to a practice of criminalizing low-level infractions that are associated with homelessness or poverty, such as sitting outside, sleeping outside, or panhandling.
    • Low-level driving charges: This indicates a lack of diversion opportunities for minor driving offenses, as well as the criminalization of civil issues, such as driving with a suspended license—a problem more often linked to the inability to pay fines and fees than to dangerous driving.See for example Chris Mai,The High Price of Using Justice Fines and Fees to Fund Government in Virginia (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2021), 4, https://perma.cc/B442-2HCV.
    • Other low-level and nonviolent charges: When a large portion of the jail population is there due to lower level, nonviolent charges, this points to a lack of diversion opportunities in the community and should motivate law enforcement and prosecutors to examine alternative methods of handling these cases.
  • High admissions for technical violations of probation. Using incarceration as a penalty for technical violations of probation conditions—such as missing required check-ins, traveling outside of permitted areas, missing curfew, etc.—may point to (1) probation conditions that are more onerous or imposed for longer than necessary for public safety, or (2) a lack of graduated sanctionsthat help avoid the reliance on jail as a penalty.

Once you have a sense of the primary drivers of your local jail population, you will be able to more clearly assess where policy changes will have the most impact on decarceration. Use your conclusions from data to form your local policy priorities by tailoring evidence-based reforms to your own community needs. The following policy solutions are not exhaustive, but they will provide you with a sense of your options and help you determine your next steps.

Reduce pretrial incarceration

Expand use of citations in lieu of arrest.

Target actors: Law enforcement, state legislators.

In every state, law enforcement officers are authorized to issue citations in lieu of arrest for certain categories of charges.National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL),Citation in Lieu of Arrest (Washington, DC: NCSL, 2018), https://perma.cc/7NA8-CSR5. Most often, citations are permitted for low-level misdemeanors and traffic charges, but some states permit law enforcement officers to use their discretion to issue citations for some or all felonies. However, local agency culture and internal policy can mean that law enforcement officers do not issue citations as often as they are authorized to under the law. To address this, law enforcement can change internal policy to require citation release for certain charges, and state legislatures can also establish a presumption for citations for certain categories of charges.

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Expand alternatives to arrest and police directives to not arrest people for certain issues.

Target actors: Law enforcement, service providers, local government.

Increasingly, some police departments are instructing officers not to arrest people for certain actions, such as possessing cannabis or engaging in sex work. Further, many law enforcement agencies have procedures that allow officers to use alternatives to arrest, such as transporting people to the emergency room, shelter, or community-based service providers instead of the police station. However, resources may be scarce, departmental policies and processes often are not well-established, and individual officers may lack awareness of their range of options. In addition to law enforcement agencies better educating officers about existing opportunities for diversion from the criminal legal system, local government should dedicate increased resources to community-based services to maximize the available options.

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Establish broad policy for automatic pretrial release.

Target actors: Courts, prosecutors.

Local judiciaries can establish court rules requiring automatic pretrial release without conditions for certain types of charges. For example, courts might require automatic pretrial release for all charges that do not involve actual or threatened violence, sexual assault, or when people have outstanding warrants or other holds. Prosecutors can express public support for automatic pretrial release policies and, in the meantime, can tailor bail recommendations to the court to conform to the proposed policy.

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Provide defense counsel at first court appearance.

Target actors: Local legislators, public defenders.

Effective legal representation at the first court appearance can have a significant impact on a person’s chances to obtain pretrial release. State and local government should dedicate funds to ensure defense counsel at first appearance, especially in smaller counties without robust public defender systems.

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Establish warrant grace periods for failure to appear.

Target actors: Courts, state legislators.

Research has shown that many people who fail to appear for court usually return voluntarily within a few days or weeks.Mary T. Phillips, How Release Type Affects Failure to Appear (New York: New York City Criminal Justice Agency, 2011), 3, https://perma.cc/7M36-8ZG6. Courts can adopt policies that are in line with this research by establishing a grace period before issuing bench warrants and notifying people that they need to come to court to resolve the failure to appear before a warrant is issued. Courts can also establish procedures for people to easily resolve warrants and request new court dates online or in the community in order to avoid arrest. State legislatures can also enact laws requiring local courts to allow grace periods.

Adopt a court reminder system.

Target actors: Courts.

Research shows that court date reminders can reduce failure to appear rates by as much as 25 to 50 percent.Marie VanNostrand, Kenneth Rose, and Kimberly Weibrecht, State of the Science of Pretrial Release Recommendations and Supervision (Rockville, MD: Pretrial Justice Institute, 2011), 16-20, https://perma.cc/25HP-HDF5.. Courts should set up mechanisms to send automated court date reminders to all people with court dates. Reminders should be sent without requiring people to opt in and should include clear instructions for accessing the courthouse as well as information regarding consequences for missing court.

Eliminate the commercial bail bond industry.

Target actor: State legislators.

Commercial bail bond operations benefit from a predatory system, extracting money from people who do not have the means to post cash bail. These operations are harmful to communities and exert political power against efforts to reform bail systems. Communities can pressure state legislatures to address these harms by making commercial bail bond operations illegal under state law. Commercial bail bonding is already illegal in Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon, and Wisconsin.Sheila Cohen, “Bail Bond Industry Fights Back Against Moves To Limit Or End Cash Bail,” Wisconsin Public Radio, January 15, 2019, https://perma.cc/NV9N-UFRJ.

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Reduce jail incarceration for nonviolent low-level charges

Adopt a local declination policy.

Target actors: Prosecutors.

Prosecutors can contribute to decarceration and community safety by announcing that they will decline to prosecute certain categories of charges arising out of the criminalization of poverty, substance use, or mental health. Prosecutors in some jurisdictions have issued formal policies against prosecuting crimes related to drug possession, sex work, non–public safety stops by law enforcement, and more.

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Expand opportunities for diversion.

Target actors: Prosecutors, law enforcement, public defenders, service providers, community advocates.

Prosecutors can work with other system actors to establish internal processes for referring cases to diversion programs instead of filing charges. Programs might include restorative justice programs, mental health treatment, substance use supports, and community support services. Similarly, police can adopt internal policies for connecting people with community services instead of making arrests.

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End criminalization of civil issues.

Target actors: Prosecutors, local and state legislators.

In some jurisdictions, charges arising from civil issues—such as driver’s license suspension, driving without valid registration or insurance, or nonpayment of child support—account for a significant portion of jail admissions. These types of charges should not be addressed through incarceration, in part because jail detention only makes it harder for people to pay the fines. Localities can take a variety of approaches in response to this issue, including creating online opportunities to vacate warrants and enter payment plans, requiring automatic pretrial release for people charged with these offenses, and supporting state-level legislative changes to end criminalization of civil issues.

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Eliminate city ordinances that criminalize life-sustaining behavior.

Target actors: Local legislators.

Localities should review and eliminate any ordinances that criminalize unavoidable behavior associated with poverty or homelessness, such as sleeping or camping outside, loitering, and panhandling. Research shows that criminalization measures do nothing to alleviate homelessness and instead perpetuate a cycle of homelessness and incarceration.Chris Herring, Dilara Yarbrough, and Lisa Marie Alatorre, “Pervasive Penality: How the Criminalization of Poverty Perpetuates Homelessness,” Social Problems 67 (2020), 131-149, https://perma.cc/UT57-VWMZ.

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Reduce the scope and punitiveness of probation

Shorten standard terms of probation.

Target actors: Courts, probation agencies, local and state legislators.

Long probation terms can unnecessarily expose people on probation to risks of revocation.Kendra Bradner, Vincent Schiraldi, Natasha Mejia, and Evangeline Lopoo, More Work to Do: Analysis of Probation and Parole in the United States, 2017-2018 (New York: Columbia University Justice Lab, 2020), 12-14, https://perma.cc/FJE3-T8CB.. People who are compliant should not be subject to restrictions on travel, reporting requirements that interfere with employment and family time, or onerous substance use testing requirements for long periods of time. Many states have placed legislative limits on lengths of probation terms, but courts can also exercise their authority to shorten standard terms.Teresa Wiltz, “Doing Less Time: Some States Cut Back on Probation,” Pew Stateline, April 26, 2017, https://perma.cc/8EK3-RABJ.

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Reduce the use and frequency of onerous conditions and fees.

Target actors: Courts, probation agencies, local and state legislators.

Probation agencies can make conditions less onerous by offering flexibility in meeting terms of supervision, such as allowing check-ins via phone as opposed to in person. They can also incentivize success by offering opportunities to move toward fewer check-ins. Further, probation conditions such as drug testing often carry a cost to the person subject to those requirements. Drug testing conditions should be reserved for people in formal substance use disorder treatment programs and their parameters should be defined by health professionals, not judicial actors. Where necessary, drug tests should be available at no cost and with flexible hours.

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Expand opportunities for early discharge from probation.

Target actors: Probation agencies, courts, local and state legislators.

Probation departments can create opportunities for people on supervision to earn early discharge from probation after meeting certain goals or conditions. Research has shown that people discharged early from probation, regardless of their underlying charges, had lower rates of recidivism than people who served full terms of supervision.Jarred Williams, Vincent Schiraldi, and Kendra Bradner, The Wisconsin Community Corrections Story (New York: Columbia University Justice Lab, January 2019), 25, https://perma.cc/WX76-QSTP. In many places, early discharge policies are automatic, and probation staff do not need to petition for reduced supervision times.Vera Institute of Justice, The Potential of Community Corrections: to Improve Communities and Reduce Incarceration (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2013), 27, https://perma.cc/52A9-57DM.. State law governs the authority of judges or probation agencies to grant early termination of probation, and some jurisdictions may need to pursue state-level legislative changes in order to enact these policies.

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Reduce the overall impact of jail and other harmful practices on the community

Work to document and repair past harms from reliance on incarceration.

Target actors: Prosecutors, defense attorneys, court personnel, law enforcement, local government, community advocates.

There is power in acknowledging past harms and in recognizing how those harms still reverberate in the present day. Prosecutors, for example, can issue apologies for past punitive policies. They can also create mechanisms to remedy the effects of these past policies by requesting that old charges be dismissed, supporting applications for early release, and facilitating record expungement. Community advocates can examine ways to memorialize past tragedies, and government leaders can apologize for their roles and the roles of their offices in events that still impact the community today.

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Question and resist new jail construction and expansion.

Target actors: Local legislators, jail administrators.

Some counties depend on unreliable crime projections that reinforce racial bias or current high jail populations to justify plans to build new, bigger jail facilities that allocate valuable community resources to expand the community’s carceral footprint. But jail populations typically rise as new bed space becomes available. Research suggests that this is because local criminal legal system actors adjust their decisions in the face of material constraints: As long as jail beds are available, system actors lack motivation to find alternatives to jail. Legislators, system actors, and community advocates should push back on decisions to expand the jail or spend money on jail construction and focus instead on alleviating overcrowding by changing local policies to reduce the number of people in the jail.

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End contracts with ICE to rent local jail beds.

Target actors: Jail administrators, local and state legislators.

Local contracts to rent county jail beds to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for the purpose of immigrant detention create additional problematic incentives for counties to expand local jails. County executives can choose to end local contracts with ICE; state legislators can ban local jails from contracting with ICE; and local system actors and community advocates can build pressure for the county to stop this harmful practice.

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Work with county officials to reduce budgetary reliance on criminal justice fines and fees.

Target actors: Local legislators.

Many counties charge community members steep fines and fees related to their criminal cases. These fees place an enormous burden on people who owe them, preventing people from achieving stability. Not only are fines and fees harmful to individuals, but research has also shown that local governments spend more money trying to collect these funds and punishing people for nonpayment than they ultimately receive. Local legislators can work to reduce or eliminate justice fines and fees and waive any discretionary fees, and system actors and community advocates can build pressure for them to do so.

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  • Leverage advocacy strategies to effect change. After you have identified your power to effect change, formed partnerships with others in the community, gathered necessary evidence, and identified specific policy goals, you can utilize a broad range of advocacy tools to make your voice heard. These might include testifying at public budget or legislative hearings, organizing letter-writing campaigns, conducting briefings with key local or state decision makers, organizing a delegation of decision makers to visit the local jail or meet with people who have direct experience with incarceration in your community, or meeting directly with candidates for key local or state offices. For more details on these tactics, consult this advocacy toolkit tailored to the immigration justice space, and watch Vera’s website for a toolkit for organizing against jail construction in your community.
  • Educate the media. Local media can play an important role in garnering community support for jail decarceration efforts. Keep journalists, local newspapers, and other media outlets informed of your efforts, and leverage their platforms to convey a positive image of the work to the community. Connect reporters with objective data and subjective anecdotes that highlight systemic issues. The media can also help elevate successes, respond to misunderstandings or backlash, and hold system actors accountable for proposed actions toward decarceration.
  • Set clear goals and substantive benchmarks for achieving change. Some places have found it helpful to set target-date benchmarks to reduce jail populations or other similarly concrete goals to implement policy changes. Tracking benchmarks over time is also essential because jail incarceration trends may fluctuate; initial reductions are not always sustained.Oliver Hinds, Jasmine Heiss, and Olive Lu, The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2018), https://perma.cc/N7RF-XGXB. However, it is equally important to set goals that are not as straightforward to measure—such as community members’ perceptions of fairness and transparency of processes and agencies in the local criminal legal system—as it is to meet quantitative goals.
  • Prepare for temporary setbacks. There will inevitably be difficult moments in your local decarceration work. Know that you are not alone and that nearly all people who do this work will encounter a range of issues, including lack of data accessibility and transparency, lack of cooperation from key actors, political blowback, a key change agent stepping down from a leadership position, or something else unexpected. Having a strong coalition of support from other key actors and community members will help you to weather these issues. This work does not happen overnight, and your dedication to the long term will help you achieve meaningful changes.

As this toolkit illustrates, many individuals, organizations, and government agencies are advocating for jail decarceration in cities and counties across the United States. Although the details of every local community are unique, many of the tools, obstacles, and possible solutions are more similar than you might think. No matter your specific role in the community, you have the power to push for change that will make a powerful difference—even small efforts will create momentum, and that momentum will push toward transformative change that will leave your community safer, healthier, and more equitable for all.


This work is supported by Arnold Ventures, a philanthropy dedicated to tackling some of the most pressing problems in the United States.


References

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Read the Technical Guide to Jail Data Analysis here.