What We're Doing to Close Mass Incarceration's Front Door

Mass incarceration is an affront to bedrock American values of justice and human dignity. It dehumanizes poor people and people of color, damages already marginalized communities, and siphons off public resources with little social benefit. Across the country, admissions to our nation’s more than 3,000 local jails—which serve as mass incarceration’s front door—nearly doubled between 1983 and 2013, and there are an estimated 12 million jail admissions annually.

Although big cities have been achieving large reductions in jail incarceration, the number of people incarcerated in jail has continued to grow in rural counties and small towns. That’s why Vera partnered with Google.org to launch In Our Backyards, a major initiative to use our unique data to inform towns all across America of this problem, tell the stories of those it impacts—ranging from local businesses losing employees to local schoolchildren losing parents—and spark reform at the local level. Ending mass incarceration across all of America requires us to work together to drive change in every county nationwide.

The data that informs In Our Backyards grew out of our Incarceration Trends project—launched in 2015—which mapped, county-by-county, how jails have grown in size, and first raised the flag that small and rural counties are driving mass incarceration. In 2017, we expanded Incarceration Trends to provide a deeper understanding of who is in our local jails, how many people remain incarcerated simply because they are too poor to pay bail, and racial disparities in incarceration—knowledge that we are sharing with local leaders seeking reform.

Our focus on small and rural counties doesn’t mean our work is complete in places like New York City. With New York’s streets as safe as they’ve ever been, and justice reform leading to the lowest jail incarceration rates in decades, we and our local partners recognized that one major obstacle to achieving lasting justice reform in New York City must be removed: Rikers Island jail. In May 2017, we launched a comprehensive effort to capitalize and build upon the recent work and recommendations of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform (in which Vera played a significant, leadership role). Over the next three years, our initiative will concretely target three key opportunities to reframe justice in New York City and make closing the Rikers Island jail a reality: reforming the bail system, so that no one stays in jail because they’re poor; reducing the unnecessary use of incarceration, by reforming practices and developing alternatives to incarceration to help those that are disproportionately harmed, especially women and girls; and facilitating trainings, outreach, and research to educate and engage key government and community leaders in order to build support for critical reforms.

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Recognizing that people with physical and behavioral health needs are overrepresented and poorly served in our city’s jails, we partnered with New York City to provide improved health care for marginalized New Yorkers who come into contact with the city’s courts. This included enhanced and immediate screenings by a qualified health professional and alternatives to jail incarceration for people with behavioral health needs. As a result, an estimated 601 trips to an emergency room were avoided, and the city conducted more than 35,000 health screenings.

The urgency and scale of the crisis facing our criminal justice systems is
inspiring unlikely partnerships among business leaders, elected officials, and law enforcement—partnerships that are driving reform and transforming communities. Throughout last year, we continued our work with the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce Criminal Justice Task Force (which includes local business leaders and is chaired by Clayton Bennett, owner of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder) to better understand who was going to the Oklahoma County jail and why, what the challenges are, and where the opportunities lie to safely reduce dangerously high and costly levels of incarceration. The jail, built for only 1,200 people, held an alarming 2,600 people by 2015. By looking at the nearly 40,000 jail admissions the previous year, the task force learned that roughly 80 percent involved people being detained

As a result of our research and recommendations to adopt safer and more effective alternatives to jail, the population in the Oklahoma County jail has already fallen by 30 percent.

pretrial, usually for nonviolent offences, many of them minor. Thousands of people whose childcare and job responsibilities make it exceedingly difficult to fulfill obligations to the criminal justice system—such as appearing in court or paying a fine—were also jailed. As a result of our research and recommendations to adopt safer and more effective alternatives to jail, the population in the Oklahoma County jail has already fallen by 30 percent.

We also made several recommendations for justice reform in Tulsa County after examining the drivers of growth and overcrowding at the Tulsa County jail. We are working with our Tulsa partners to ensure that alternatives to incarceration and diversion programs are accessible during the earliest stages of people’s cases.

We continue to make critical progress in New Orleans. In January 2017, our report Past Due exposed how the city’s imposition of a financial cost on its users, even before they are convicted of a crime, has backfired. Though many assumed New Orleans made money by imposing bail and charging conviction fines and fees, the city actually lost millions of dollars by locking up people who are too poor to pay. In 2015, the city spent $6.4 million to incarcerate people who couldn’t pay, but collected only $4.5 million in bail, fines and fees. Since the release of our report, we have made presentations about our findings to the Judicial Court of the Louisiana Supreme Court, the New Orleans City Council, the Louisiana Bar Association, and a number of journalists.

Finally, we continued working with several jurisdictions through the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, which aims to reduce mass incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails. For example, we assisted Milwaukee County with launching a new program that moves individuals with mental health or substance use issues out of jail within 48 hours and connects them with appropriate services and care, and we worked with Spokane, Washington to develop a new tool to help judges more effectively use safe alternatives to incarceration for individuals who commit minor or nonviolent offenses.