Although major cities have substantially reduced their use of prison and jail, the least populous communities in the United States continue to put more people behind bars. This quiet jail boom in smaller cities and rural communities is harming people and consuming hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars that might otherwise be invested in community-based services that could contribute to health and safety.


As a result of advocacy by Mano Amiga San Marcos, the Hays County, Texas, county executive body partnered with Vera in 2021 to create a publicly available, comprehensive jail transparency dashboard that reflects how the Hays County Jail is actually used. For the first time, policymakers and community members had access to the same up-to-date, granular information about the charges landing people in jail and the disparate impact of pretrial detention and long jail stays across race and gender. In 2022, Mano Amiga leveraged insights from the dashboard to secure several significant policy changes and community investments, including the creation of a holistic public defender office to provide pretrial and mental health services for system-involved people. In November, the Hays County Commissioners Court unanimously approved $11.28 million for the public defender’s office contract, which will be in place until 2027. With Vera’s support, Mano Amiga also worked closely with the City of San Marcos to pass Texas’s first cite and release ordinance in 2020. In the past two years, this policy approach has become a blueprint for communities across Texas to reduce arrests and incarceration by eliminating the possibility of arrest for some for low-level, citation-eligible offenses. The mayor of Houston—the nation’s fourth largest city—enacted a similar policy based on the San Marcos model, and community organizations and elected officials in San Antonio, Dallas, Fort Worth, Laredo, and Waco have also been working with Mano Amiga to replicate the policy in their cities, with an interest in continued expansion demonstrated across the state.

“Taking steps to shed more light on who is held in our county jail, will lead to changes in the way people in our community—many impoverished or dealing with mental or behavioral challenges—are warehoused in the system.”
—Joe Negrete, a Kyle, Texas, resident who has been impacted by incarceration

North Carolina

For the past three years, Vera has collaborated with Emancipate North Carolina, the NAACP of Wilson County, and the Community Alliance for Public Education (CAPE) to capture the impact of parental incarceration and reduce the number of people in jail. In Wilson, parents, educators, community partners, researchers, policy experts, and law enforcement members came together to analyze data and conduct surveys to find ways to better care for the children in their neighborhoods and schools who are impacted by parental incarceration. The project also highlighted stories of people whose pretrial detention took them away from their families and forced them to miss work, traumatizing their children and destabilizing their ability to meet their families’ basic needs. As a result of these efforts, Wilson County has committed to implementing reforms, including expanding the use of citations in lieu of custodial arrests for low-level charges and curbing the use of jail for charges stemming from poverty, like shoplifting, driving with a revoked license, or failure to pay child support. The Wilson County Sheriff reported to Vera that, at the start of this partnership, Wilson County’s jail population was almost at capacity, but that by July of 2022, the average daily jail population had decreased by more than 50 percent.


In Madison County, Vera has supported the Huntsville Bail Fund’s work to ensure that jail is not used as the “solution” to housing insecurity. This has resulted in the City of Huntsville both providing alternatives for residents facing eviction and avoiding mass arrests, which have characterized previous evictions. As part of this effort, approximately 45 residents have received support in rehousing or safely relocating, with on-the-ground volunteers and legal observers providing assistance the day of the eviction—marking the first housing encampment closure in Huntsville that did not end in a single arrest.

“Most of these residents are disabled, and virtually everyone I interviewed had experienced jail before losing their housing. These people lose their entire lives every time they are arrested. Every possession they own is trashed or discarded, even their medication and their medical equipment. Once you’re stuck, there’s no path back out to stability. It doesn’t have to be like this.”
—Tahirih Osborne, executive director of the Huntsville Bail Fund


In Washington and Benton Counties, the Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition (AJRC) is focused on ending mass incarceration at the city, county, and state levels. Vera has supported AJRC’s work with local government actors to invest in solutions that support long-term public safety, like pretrial services, treatment for substance use disorders and mental illnesses, and solutions to pervasive homelessness and poverty. AJRC leaders have been working closely with the police chiefs in the cities of Fayetteville and Springdale to elevate the success of diverting emergency calls to in-house social workers. This model prevents unnecessary arrest and booking into jail and helps connect people to life-saving resources. AJRC is working with the chiefs to expand this model in each city and is facilitating community, law enforcement, and local government conversations with other communities that have piloted new approaches that reduce jail bookings.