America’s dependence on jails has fueled mass incarceration, perpetuated a false equivalence with safety, and deprived communities of color of resources they need to thrive. Government officials at every level must work to shift the paradigm from punishment as the response to social issues to deeper community investment. Investing in community-based solutions will result in a dramatic decrease in people entering the criminal legal system and languishing in pretrial detention and create greater ability for people and communities of color to access resources needed for safety and well-being.

Elizabeth Swavola
Project Director, Jail Decarceration

The United States does not need new jail beds. Although conversations about mass incarceration often focus on prison, local jails admit almost 20 times more people each year, a staggering 10.7 million annually. Most of those in jail are poor people arrested on minor charges who can’t post bail. Even a short stay behind bars can exact a terrible toll on their lives, causing job loss, trauma to dependent children, and loss of housing.

Vera continues to collect and publicize data on current prison and jail populations in local jails and state and federal prisons. The organization’s People in Jail and Prison in Spring 2021 report revealed that little more than a year after the first calls to release incarcerated people during the COVID-19 pandemic, decarceration efforts appear to have stalled—even as the pandemic still rages and the country continues to lead the world in incarceration. After an unprecedented 14 percent drop in incarceration in the first half of 2020—from 2.1 million people to 1.8 million—incarceration declined only slightly from fall 2020 to spring 2021. While state and federal prison populations declined by 9 percent, the relative stasis in incarceration since late 2020 is the result of a refilling of many jails. By spring 2021, jail populations had increased 13 percent from their mid-2020 low.

In 2021, Vera’s In Our Backyards (IOB) Initiative and Jail Decarceration Program used local research to show the public that investments in jails are not investments in public safety and decarceration is the best solution to overcrowded jails. IOB, which focuses on ending mass incarceration in small cities and rural communities, partnered closely with local organizers and advocates to support their efforts to stop jail expansion plans and reverse incarceration rates in their communities. Twenty IOB community grantee partners across 10 states have received grants, research support, and technical assistance to press their local leaders to end mass incarceration.

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Photo by Down Home NC.
A sign outside Haywood County Court House encourages legislators to reject a proposal to expand the county jail.

2021 Successes

  • In Douglas County, Kansas, leaders were proposing a jail expansion that would have cost the county nearly $30 million. With Vera’s assistance (including community grant, research, and policy support), a coalition hosted a Direct Action Assembly with 800 participants, educated local business owners about the use of taxpayer funds, and trained more than 60 community leaders to host conversations in their homes. After these sustained efforts, the county commission unanimously voted to overturn the jail expansion plan.
  • In Haywood County, North Carolina, IOB provided strategy, data analysis, and communications support to help We Are Down Home North Carolina and partners fight a proposed jail expansion that would have cost $16.5 million and more than doubled the county’s capacity to lock people up. Commissioners in Haywood County approved an FY2022 budget without funding to expand the county jail.
  • In Staunton, Virginia, IOB supported a new coalition that emerged to prevent expansion of the Middle River Regional Jail. Vera facilitated local strategy development, provided data analysis and messaging, and connected the organizers to a community of practice in the broader justice reform movement. In March 2021, the coalition successfully secured enough support in the city council to defeat the jail expansion proposal.

Vera’s IOB team is also working to advance a federal agenda, including efforts that supported bipartisan introduction of the the Community First Pretrial Reform and Jail Decarceration Act in October 2020 and its reintroduction in summer 2021. The bipartisan legislation, introduced by U.S. Representatives David Trone and Kelly Armstrong, would authorize $600 million over five years to support local jail population reduction efforts, with priority given to small cities and rural communities that have high or rising incarceration rates. Introduction of the proposed bill came eight months after Vera’s IOB and federal policy teams—in conjunction with U.S. Representatives Alma Adams, Joe Kennedy III, Terri Sewell, and David Trone—hosted a standing room–only briefing on Capitol Hill titled “Rural America’s Hidden Jail Crisis.” This team is also building a federal coalition to end the use of USDA Rural Development funds to subsidize rural jail construction and expansion by 2023, with coalition partners from progressive and center-right justice reform organizations; rural development and farmer advocacy organizations; and housing, behavioral health, and transit-focused advocates.

In October, Vera’s Jail Decarceration Program published A Toolkit for Decarceration In Your Community, which offers evidence-based information about how community organizers, journalists, judges, law enforcement, local legislators, probation officers, prosecutors, public defenders, researchers, state legislators, and system-impacted people can drive decarceration efforts. It provides a six-step process for advocates and organizers working to decarcerate their local jails:

  1. know your power to effect change,
  2. identify opportunities for alignment and partnership,
  3. harness the power of data,
  4. identify local drivers of criminalization and jail,
  5. build locally tailored policy solutions,
  6. build pressure for achieving and sustaining change.