Bipartisan Legislation Introduced to Support Local Efforts to Reduce and Address Racial Inequities in Incarceration Rates in America’s Smallest Communities

Bill would provide grants to fund community-led priorities that will support families and promote public safety.

CONTACT: Abby Silverman,

WASHINGTON, D.C. - U.S. Rep. David Trone (D-MD 6th) and U.S. Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-ND At-large District) today introduced “The Community First Pretrial Reform and Jail Decarceration Act,” to support locally-driven efforts to shrink the footprint of jails, address racial inequities in incarceration, and redirect precious taxpayer dollars to community priorities that will support families and ensure public safety. Planning and implementation grants authorized by the Community First Pretrial Reform and Jail Decarceration Act will be prioritized for rural communities with high or rising incarceration rates—places that are too often left out of the national conversation about mass incarceration.

Many of America’s smallest communities are facing a cascade of economic and social problems: job loss, deepening poverty, deteriorating physical and mental health, increased substance use, and the hollowing out of public and private institutions. High and rising jail incarceration rates are at the center of these crises. For the past four years, the number of people in our nation’s jails has been on the rise, fueled by jail growth in rural America. Since 2013, The jail population has grown 27 percent in rural counties and 7 percent in smaller cities, even as the number of people in jails in the nation's biggest cities declined by 18 percent. Rural communities have some of the worst racial disparities in incarceration, and are also driving a national increase in women’s incarceration.

For decades, the federal government has fueled a quiet jail boom in rural America through grants, loans, and per diem payments that support or incentivize bigger jails. The Community First Pretrial Reform and Jail Decarceration Act represents a bipartisan effort to turn a new page and direct federal dollars toward reducing the burden of unnecessary incarceration on taxpayers and communities.

“Our current justice system has failed to work for the benefit of the people. We need to drastically reimagine the policies and systems that have led us to this inflection point,” said Congressman David Trone. “This bill will help reduce incarceration rates and recidivism, and make our justice system more just. I want to thank Congressman Armstrong and the hardworking folks at Vera for working with me on this critical legislation. We have to work together, Democrats and Republicans, if we want to create real change to our criminal justice system.”

“A significant portion of incarcerated individuals in local jails are held in pretrial detention,” said Congressman Kelly Armstrong. “This bill will help reduce incarceration rates and keep communities safe by implementing common sense reform.”

More than half of the people incarcerated in the U.S. are in small city and rural jails, and approximately two-thirds of all people in jail are being held in pretrial detention, the vast majority of whom are too poor to post cash bail. Putting a price on freedom sends a steady stream of poor and vulnerable people to jail at tremendous cost to counties, while still enabling those with resources to walk free before trial.

The Community First Pretrial Reform and Jail Decarceration Act would authorize $600 million over 5 years for a new Justice Department grant program. Assistance would go to local government entities working in partnership with community-based organizations and directly impacted people, and support implementation of reforms like the elimination or reduction of cash bail, the creation or expansion of pretrial services and diversion programs, and early assignment of counsel.

“Sending people to jail increases poverty, erodes public health, and makes entire communities more vulnerable to premature death—a reality that has become even starker during a global pandemic,” said Jasmine Heiss, Director of the In Our Backyards initiative at the Vera Institute of Justice. “Even as hospitals close and jobs dry up in rural America, jails have remained a first-line response to poverty and social problems. This important legislation represents an opportunity for federal leaders to break with that history and truly invest in the resilience of smalltown America, with a clear commitment to racial equity.”

While local jails hold fewer people on a given day than state or federal prisons, the average daily population doesn’t fully capture the impact these local facilities have on communities. People are booked into jail nearly 11 million times each year—nearly 18 times the number of annual admissions to state and federal prisons. This is despite that fact that, according to Vera’s analysis, only 5 percent of arrests each year are for crimes of violence. Even a short jail stay can have catastrophic consequences, including loss of employment, housing, custody of one’s children, and increased vulnerability to overdose.

During a global pandemic, incarcerated people are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 due to close quarters and unsanitary conditions. As people churn in and out of jail, the virus has also spread to vulnerable communities. But even in the recent era of criminal justice reform, rural jails and pretrial justice have too often been left out of federal policy conversations. The funding and support authorized in the Community First Pretrial Reform and Jail Decarceration Act has never been more urgent for vulnerable communities.

To read bill text, click here.

To read a bill summary, click here.

About the Vera Institute of Justice:

The Vera Institute of Justice is a justice reform change agent. Vera produces ideas, analysis, and research that inspire change in the systems people rely upon for safety and justice. Vera collaborates with the communities most impacted by these systems and works in close partnership with government and civic leaders to implement change. Across projects, Vera is committed to explicitly and effectively reducing the burdens of the justice system on people of color and frames all work with an understanding of our country’s history of racial oppression. Vera is currently pursuing core priorities of ending the misuse of jails, transforming conditions of confinement, providing legal services for immigrants, and ensuring that justice systems more effectively serve America’s increasingly diverse communities. Vera has offices in Brooklyn, NY; Washington, DC; New Orleans, and Los Angeles.

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