Ending Mass Incarceration

Reducing the Use of Jails

Conversations about mass incarceration tend to focus on prison, but local jails admit almost 20 times more people annually. The long-term trend is shocking: Twenty-five years ago, for every 100 arrests, 70 people were booked into jail. By 2016, even after crime rates plummeted, that ratio had swelled to 99 out of 100, reflecting a knee-jerk use of jail out of step with public safety. Today, jails log a staggering 10.7 million admissions a year—mostly poor people arrested on minor charges who can’t post bail and for whom even a few days behind bars exact a high and harmful toll.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Through the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, Vera’s offices in New Orleans and Los Angeles, and direct partnerships with jurisdictions nationwide, we’re helping officials rethink their use of jails as a means to keep communities safe. There’s no simple fix, so the work includes using alternatives to arrest and prosecution for minor charges, ending the use of money bail, eliminating fines and fees that trap people in jail and, most importantly, investing in resources and partnerships that build healthier and safer communities.

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Jail populations have fallen significantly across New York State, and crime has dropped as well. But spending on jails continues to climb. In 2019, the 57 counties outside New York City collectively spent more than $1.3 billion to staff and run their jails. Counties must cut jail spending and reinvest those savings in communities most impacted by ...

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