Ending Mass Incarceration

Reducing the Use of Jails

Conversations about mass incarceration tend to focus on prison, but local jails admit 20 times more people annually. The long-term trend is shocking: In 1982, for every 100 arrests, 51 people were booked into jail. By 2012, even after crime rates plummeted, that ratio had swelled to 95 out of 100, reflecting a knee-jerk use of jail out of step with threats to public safety. Today, jails log a staggering 12 million admissions a year—mostly poor people arrested for minor offenses who can’t post bail, and for whom even a few days behind bars exact a high toll.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Through the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, our own office in New Orleans, and direct partnerships with jurisdictions nationwide, we’re helping officials use jails as they were intended: to protect communities from dangerous people. There’s no simple fix, so the work includes using alternatives to arrest and prosecution for minor offenses, recalibrating the use of bail, and addressing fines and fees that also trap people in jail.

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