To be responsive to residents’ needs and account for the harm caused by incarceration, jurisdictions across the country must look beyond jails and the criminal legal system for public safety solutions. Effectively ending the current dependence on jail incarceration requires an ecosystem of services and supports that enhance the mental, physical, and socioeconomic well-being of the people who have been most marginalized. The list of programs presented here is not exhaustive, and despite sharing common challenges, no two communities are exactly alike. It’s important to tailor approaches to fit specific local contexts. Investments should be made with a spirit of innovation and experimentation toward a goal of transformation and repair, acknowledging histories of harm and past failures. Policymakers and practitioners must build relationships founded on partnership and power sharing with community-based organizations, particularly those led by formerly incarcerated people, use direct funding or other in-kind support to help identify local assets and needs, and provide resources to expand their work.

Ultimately, a network of community-based services and supports could go a long way to address criminalized behaviors in ways safer and more effective than jails. Expanding non-jail solutions is a key part of a broader strategy to improve racial and economic justice for all communities, but it is not a panacea for the harms of the current system—both past and present. Commitment from government agencies and community-based organizations alike is crucial to shrink the criminal legal system’s footprint and end reliance on arrest and incarceration to address social concerns like homelessness, behavioral health crises, and interpersonal violence.


Author: Melvin Washington, program associate II, Vera Institute of Justice

Editor: Elle Teshima, editor, Vera Institute of Justice

Production Consultant: Gail Ablow

Video Editor: Judith Wolff

Web Design: Michael Mehler, web engagement director, Vera Institute of Justice, Karen Ball, front end developer, Vera Institute of Justice, Madison Hindo, digital content coordinator, Vera Institute of Justice, and Surbhi Chawla, digital designer, Vera Institute of Justice

Photo Credits:

Baltimore: Elvert Barnes, Community Mediation Center, Blink O’Faneye

Chicago: Wilhelm Joys Anderson, Thee Erin, Sean T. Evans, Patrick Griffin, PMonaghan, Tripp

Denver: Urban Institute Courtesy of Maura Friedman, Robert Kash, Brandon Marshall

Tucson: Vincent Aguilar, Anthony Dolce

Vera thanks representatives from the Westside Community Triage and Wellness Center in Cook County, Illinois; the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless in Denver, Colorado; Connections Health Solutions in Pima County, Arizona; and the Baltimore Community Mediation Center in Baltimore, Maryland. The members of these organizations were gracious enough to volunteer their time during a global pandemic and share their perspectives via video interviews. We are beyond grateful for their willingness to contribute their insights to this project. We thank Patrick Griffin of the MacArthur Foundation for his support throughout the development of this report. We also thank Madz Reeve for their help coordinating and conducting the interviews; Gail Ablow and Judith Wolff for their amazing work producing and editing the interviews; Jose Enriquez and Jonathan Prellwitz for coordinating the photo shoot in Tucson; and John Wehmann for helping with the Urban Institute photos. We also would like to thank our colleagues Elizabeth Swavola, Cindy Reed, Kica Matos, Daniela Gilbert, Jason Tan de Bibiana, Jackson Beck, and Cameryn Okeke for their thoughtful reviews and feedback; Maris Mapolski, EpsteinWords, and Jac Arnade-Colwill for editorial support; Sara Duell for design assistance; and Chris Choi for digital strategy.

This report has been made possible by funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, which seeks to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails.