The passage of a moderate criminal justice reform by bipartisan majorities in Congress late last week shows we’ve reached a point where the need for meaningful and lasting reform is universally accepted. Federal leaders in the administration and Congress who pushed for a bill aimed at reforming prison sentences during the current session should be lauded for their overdue efforts. But, real, impactful, and transformative change has to grow, like a seed, from the ground up. From the local jail up.
Local jails are ground zero for our national over-incarceration epidemic. With nearly 12 million admissions every year, local jails hold about a quarter of America’s incarcerated population. Yet three-quarters of people in jail are admitted for nonviolent traffic, drug, property, or public order offenses. Most don’t pose a flight risk, which jails were originally intended to prevent. And the majority haven’t been convicted of a crime: 70 percent of people in jail are awaiting trial.
Such staggering statics may be why local jails have, in large part, served as fertile grounds where innovation and progress have taken root.
Sheriffs, prosecutors, judges, and other local leaders across the country are working together to phase out unfair and unfair practices that target people of color, low-income communities, and those grappling with mental health and substance abuse issues. They’re also rethinking how jails fit into the broader local justice system and finding alternatives to jail.
There are dozens of efforts across the country focused on creating paths to change. A key piece of these efforts is empowering local leaders with broad-based engagement and support for reform from their local communities – built on trust, accessibility, and transparency. This has to be at the core of any attempt at reform. And any commitment has to be more than a transactional opportunity for community members to speak their minds. It must be a partnership between those in power and those who are affected by that authority.
The most effective reform solutions take shape when the very people we incarcerate take part in creating those solutions alongside policymakers, activists, and practitioners. Because over-incarceration takes such a huge toll on families and communities, they are the experts whose knowledge and experience should form the basis for lasting reform. They have suffered lost income, endured parents being separated from their children, and lived with untreated mental health and substance abuse problems for generations.
For example, as part of its efforts to reform its criminal justice system and reduce the local jail population, Pima County, Arizona created a 33-member Community Collaborative which includes formerly-incarcerated men and women. Among them is 46-year-old Gerald Williams, a father of six who works in building maintenance and who spent a total of nearly 10 years in prisons in Wisconsin, Texas, and Arizona. Williams applied to join the Collaborative because he wanted to give back to the community and serve as a voice for other former inmates.
Perspectives like Gerald’s are vital, as criminal justice reform requires a confluence of voices and solutions.
Look at Philadelphia, where city officials recently announced the closure of the House of Correction (HOC), the city’s oldest jail. Closing HOC was possible because Philadelphia has decreased its jail population by 36 percent over the last three years by enacting reforms to both prevent people from entering jail and reducing case processing times for those already booked. Expanded eligibility for expedited plea offers, police-led diversion for drug-related offenders to treatment clinics, and early bail review have all been instrumental in the dramatic decrease. Now Philadelphia is building on this success, including extending the early bail review program to additional charges and bail criteria, enhancing pretrial release options, and cutting hearing times from 5 to 3 days.
Other cities and counties recognize that piloting reforms starts with answering critical questions about who is in jail, why they’re there, and what factors may be keeping them there. This, in turn, necessitates improving how data is collected, analyzed, reported, and used.
In order to do this, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, which includes Pittsburgh, created and implemented a “data dashboard” to present real-time data from its criminal justice system. The dashboard calculates how placing people on detainer for probation violations impacts the jail population in real time. Now the county’s probation office only recommends detention if a person poses a risk to public safety.
These examples illustrate the promise and progress underway nationwide. It is a collective effort that requires diligence, perseverance, and a genuine commitment from people at all levels of government to support the local leaders and community members who are crafting smart, forward-looking solutions. Let’s learn from them, let’s allow them to lead us, and let’s trust them to know what their communities need.