Mass incarceration is a defining civil rights issue—and it starts in our local jails. Today, our nation’s more than 3,000 jails—originally meant to house individuals deemed to be a danger to society or a flight risk—now serve primarily as warehouses for the poor and those who suffer from mental health or substance use disorders. This practice places a particularly heavy burden on people of color, and it harms public safety. In fact, even a couple days in jail can have an immensely negative impact on individuals, families, and communities. Vera is committed to aggressively shrinking the number of people in jail in the United States over the next five years by reducing the use of money bail, increasing diversion from incarceration, and reducing police over-reliance on arrest.

From the incarceration capital to an incubator for change

Vera partnered with the city of New Orleans to reduce its jail population by 70 percent over the last decade. The city’s incarceration rate is now at its lowest point since 1979.

As the wrath of Hurricane Katrina bore down upon the residents of New Orleans, the grave injustices of the city’s justice system became visible to the nation. The storm was a tipping point—and New Orleans knew it needed change.

To make change happen, local leaders turned to Vera, and our New Orleans office has become a nexus for advancing evidence-based criminal justice reform.

The notorious Orleans Parish Prison complex was destroyed by the 2005 hurricane, and Vera saw an opportunity to reimagine the role of incarceration in creating a safe and just community. We started by exploring how the city became the nation’s leading jailer, with 6,000 people behind bars at the time of the storm.

Our investigation revealed that an astounding 90 percent of people incarcerated in the jail were not serving a sentence, but instead, awaiting a hearing on their guilt or innocence. Nearly half of these individuals were low-risk and locked up simply because they couldn’t afford bail. A disproportionate number of them were people of color. To fight these injustices, Vera partnered with government, community members, and local organizations to implement a series of initiatives that expanded alternatives to arrest and improved case processing. We also launched the city’s first pretrial services program to change how courts make bail decisions. The success of this program led the city to absorb it as an official agency in 2017.

With Vera’s help, New Orleans has reduced its jail population by an astonishing 70 percent.

Today, more than a decade after the floods, the city has reduced its jail population by 70 percent, to fewer than 1,200, its lowest point since 1979. That’s still double the national average rate, but it’s a marked difference that has positioned the city as a national exemplar in reducing over-incarceration.

More recently, our investigation into the use of fines, fees and money bail to fund the New Orleans justice system found that bankrolling a criminal justice system on the backs of the poor was a losing proposition not only morally, but also fiscally. Our report, Past Due, revealed that when the city collected $4.5 million in bail, fines and fees, predominantly from the pockets of poor Black people, it spent $6.4 million detaining those who were jailed simply because they couldn’t afford to pay. In other words, the city spent $1.9 million With Vera’s help, New Orleans has reduced its jail population by an astonishing 70 percent. 6 more than criminal justice agencies collected, and in the process, trapped residents—the majority of them black and poor—in a vicious cycle of debt and jail.

Significantly, the findings from Vera’s report laid the groundwork for two separate federal judges to declare the state’s bail, fines and fees system unconstitutional, and to recognize the inherent financial conflict of interest for criminal district court judges in applying these cash levies. In the wake of these rulings, our New Orleans office created a blueprint for a reimagined criminal justice system and issued a report and recommendations for implementing reforms.

Vera is also working with allies in six states to replicate this research and fuel the movement to reform bail, fines and fees policy and practice nationwide.

This is what red state reform looks like

In Oklahoma, NBA team owner Clayton Bennett and allied business leaders worked with Vera to reduce the jail population by 35 percent.

When Oklahoma City officials were faced with a Justice Department takeover of its dangerously overcrowded jail system, they knew that something had to change—and the solution was not building a bigger jail.

The average daily population of the Oklahoma City Jail dropped from 2,581 to 1,685.

At the urging of local civic leader Clay Bennett, the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce formed a task force made up of business leaders, criminal justice stakeholders, the judiciary, county and city officials, state agencies, and others, to look into why the county was incarcerating so many people.

Bennett, owner of the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team and head of a financial management firm, is perhaps an unlikely champion of criminal justice reform. But he was troubled by the fact that an astonishing 77 percent of residents statewide personally know someone who has been behind bars, and that the state had the highest per capita female incarceration rate in the country.

In February 2016, the task force asked Vera to analyze why the jail was overcrowded, how it was used, and whether that use served the county’s public safety needs. By looking at the nearly 40,000 jail admissions the previous year, Vera researchers found that roughly 80 percent of the county’s admissions involved The average daily population of the Oklahoma City Jail dropped from 2,581 to 1,685. 7 people being detained pretrial, usually for nonviolent offenses, many of them minor. The most common charges at all levels of severity were drug and alcohol-related.

Vera mapped out key points for reform and worked together with Oklahoma County stakeholders to implement several jail reduction strategies, which included expanding the use of citations for low-level offenses like public drunkenness and traffic violations; eliminating the many fines and fees that force people into an endless cycle of debt and re-incarceration; and broadening access to existing drug and mental health specialty courts. The county has since reduced its jail population by 35 percent.

The beginning of the end of bail

Our work in New York has played a major role in shaping the most significant criminal justice reforms in five decades—reforms that will help shape a national policy agenda and drive local conversations about decarceration and public safety across the country.

Vera’s research and expertise supports the growing movement to eliminate money bail altogether. In New York City, this five-year initiative began in 2017 with an experiment in the city’s arraignment courts to examine what would happen if alternative forms of bail were used more often. The experiment, which we chronicled in our report Against the Odds: Experimenting with Alternative Forms of Bail in New York City’s Courts, demonstrated that those released with alternate forms of bail, including no money bail, had a combined court appearance rate of 88 percent and a rate of pretrial re-arrest for new felony offenses of 8 percent, comparable to those released on regular money bail.

Vera’s work on alternatives to money bail helped shape the most significant criminal justice reforms in New York in five decades.

As more courts across the country rule that bail cannot be set without regard to a person’s ability to pay, Vera is demonstrating how a relatively small change in practice can have a significant impact on reducing the use of pretrial detention without compromising public safety or rates of court appearance.

Similarly, Empire State of Incarceration, Vera’s comprehensive report released in 2017, shines a light on the growth of jail incarceration across New York State and offers concrete solutions for change. Using quantitative data and narratives, we explored six major drivers of jail incarceration, reflecting the wide disparity in practices and decision-making throughout New York’s vast and complicated criminal justice system. For Vera’s work on alternatives to money bail helped shape the most significant criminal justice reforms in New York in five decades. 8 instance, our finding that many people arrested in rural and suburban counties do not have an attorney at arraignment led to our recommendation that pretrial services programs be set up in all courts in the state, including town and village courts, so that more people have the benefit of being released under supervision instead of having to pay bail.

Both of these efforts feed into Vera’s larger strategy of increasing momentum and advancing real change at the state and local levels—work that paid off with a monumental New York State legislative achievement in April 2019. Critical to the passage of the New York law—which will dramatically overhaul the state’s bail system and has the potential to end mass incarceration at the local level—was Vera’s work to build new partnerships and alliances beyond those with government leaders. Working on the “inside lane”—an approach that Vera has honed for nearly 60 years, and is the foundation of our theory for change—we provided technical assistance, demonstrations, and judicial trainings, and met directly with government leaders to advocate for bail reform at the state level. At the same time, we also embraced a new, “outside lane” approach, through which we worked closely, behind the scenes, with advocates—to provide data, talking points, and strategy in order to increase public pressure and momentum. Thanks in part to this approach, the New York law has been heralded as delivering some of the most significant reforms in the state in five decades. Moving forward, we will build on this success by working in small counties across the state to push back against new jail construction and increase investment in community-based solutions to end mass incarceration.

Behind a national movement to end girls’ incarceration

Working with Vera, New York City lowered its rate of detention for girls in the juvenile justice system by 45 percent since 2015. Five more jurisdictions have joined the movement to end girls’ incarceration, and at least one is expected to reach zero girls in detention by 2020.

16 jurisdictions working with Vera are aiming for zero girls incarcerated; five of them hope to reach this goal by 2020.

Eliminating the incarceration of girls—many of whom are locked up for minor offenses like truancy or running away—is a part of Vera’s work to end racial and ethnic inequities in the justice system. Across the country, momentum is building to break the cycle of arresting, detaining, and placing girls in juvenile justice facilities and to secure equal justice for girls—with a particular focus on girls of color; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth; and youth who are gender nonconforming (GNC)—all of whom are overrepresented in the justice system.

Girls Incarceration Full 2

For far too long, girls have been overlooked in the justice reform field, despite the many troubling ways in which the system has discriminated against and failed them. Notably, over 80 percent of incarcerated girls are survivors of sexual violence and are often arrested for circumstances directly related to their abuse. Rather than getting the help they need to recover and heal, girls are locked up in a system built for—and tailored to—boys.

Vera is building a national movement to end girls’ incarceration nationwide in ten years. This effort began in 2017 with the launch of Vera’s Task Force on Ending Girls’ Incarceration in New York City, the first jurisdiction in the country to commit to zeroing out girls’ incarceration.

Drawing on leadership across the city’s justice and child-serving agencies, as well as an advisory group of justice-involved girls, the Task Force has developed effective gender-specific strategies to divert girls from the justice system, reform unnecessarily punitive law enforcement practices, and provide alternatives to incarceration that ensure long-term well-being and safety for girls in their communities.

Since we began this work, significant progress has been made: the number of girls in New York City’s juvenile justice system has dropped by 45 percent in detention and 63 percent in placement (i.e., secure group homes).

Eager to replicate this success, we have partnered with five additional jurisdictions—Hawaii, Maine, North Dakota, Santa Clara County (CA), and Philadelphia—to help them follow in New York’s footsteps and end girls’ incarceration in their localities. It’s expected that at least one of these sites will get to zero by 2020.