Safety and Justice Challenge Expands to Add Behavioral Health-Focused Cohort

By: Ashley Krider

Community Engagement Diversion Reentry July 14, 2021

More than half of our national jail population is living with behavioral health challenges, many of which may have led directly, or indirectly, to their contact with the criminal justice system. This is one of the major reasons Policy Research, Inc. (PRI) provides technical assistance to the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC), and why we’re excited to facilitate a behavioral-health focused expansion of the Network: the IMPACT Network.

It is vitally important that people can access the behavioral health treatment and services they need to avoid cycling in and out of the jail system—particularly on non-violent misdemeanor charges.

The SJC supports local leaders who are working collaboratively to rethink local justice systems from the ground up, including its interaction with behavioral health services and systems. Participating cities and counties are using data to identify key drivers of incarceration and racial inequities and working with diverse groups of community members, individuals who work in the justice system, and people with lived experience, to develop impactful reforms.

Since 2016, PRI has witnessed the efforts of local SJC sites to address the diversion, care, and, as required, adjudication of persons more effectively with behavioral health conditions. Locally driven SJC strategies focused on people with behavioral health needs to date extend through various aspects of the criminal justice system and include:

  • implementing pre-arrest and pre-trial diversion in coordination with law enforcement;
  • improving case processing efficiency;
  • enhancing in-jail services and reentry planning; and
  • providing probation alternatives to violation.

The IMPACT Network expansion will engage both current SJC sites and communities not receiving SJC funding to maximize what SJC sites have learned about how to reduce the over-incarceration of persons with behavioral health conditions, as well as to expand the membership of the SJC and spread best and promising practices to other jurisdictions across the U.S.

Some of the specific behavioral health strategies over the course of the SJC have included law enforcement diversion initiatives such as pre-booking Police-Assisted Diversion in Philadelphia (PA), crisis stabilization centers such as the Care Campus in Pennington County (SD), enhanced pretrial supervision with behavioral health screening in Pima County (AZ), and outreach to the familiar face population in Lake County (IL).

Accordingly, the IMPACT Network will be dedicated to accelerating best and promising practices in behavioral health reform and diversion, with an emphasis on local jails, and with a commitment to pursue community-driven race-conscious solutions to reduce harm to populations overrepresented in, or disparately impacted by, the criminal justice system—ؘBlack, Latinx, and Indigenous communities.

The sites will emphasize community interventions that achieve both public health and public safety goals to minimize the involvement of people with behavioral health needs throughout the criminal justice system.

The expansion will integrate six communities/organizations new to the Safety and Justice Challenge: Eau Claire County (WI), West Texas Centers/Howard County (TX), San Juan County (NM), Middlesex County (MA), Orange County (CA), and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. The six new sites will join five current SJC communities that have demonstrated progress in reducing the over-incarceration of individuals with behavioral health needs in local criminal justice systems- Allegheny County (PA), East Baton Rouge (LA), Charleston County (SC), Milwaukee County (WI), and Pennington County (SD).

Building and enhancing cross-system collaboration will also be a main focus of the IMPACT Network, including facilitating warm handoffs from law enforcement and first responders to community-based treatment. The network will focus on data collection and evaluation with an eye toward sustainability and helping successful initiatives scale up.

Our team at PRI is excited to work with IMPACT Network sites to continue the SJC’s vital work around community-based responses to the involvement of people with mental and substance use disorders in the criminal justice system.

The Catalyzing Impact of George Floyd’s Death on Criminal Justice Reform

By: Matt Davis

Community Engagement Racial Disparities Young Adults July 12, 2021

More than a year since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, how have community leaders, organizers, and activists continued to champion criminal justice reform and call for action to stop continued police violence? What has been the impact on them, and what types of reforms have had the most impact, locally? What changes would they like to see implemented in the future? And how does all this fit in with the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) and its goal of reducing jail populations across America?

Ashley Goldon, a fellow with JustLeadership USA, is a member of the Steering Committee for a new cohort of SJC cities and counties that will deepen their efforts to eliminate racial disparities in their justice system. She is also in the process of gathering support to qualify as a licensed social worker and points out that the profession of social work identified mass incarceration as a priority problem more than a decade ago.

“George Floyd’s death was a catalyzing moment,” she said. “But I still don’t think people really grasp the true weight of racism and its effects on society. By that I mean how deep the issue runs. Even with our justice reform efforts, I still think people miss how it’s connected to racism, and that’s just incredible.”

It is a theme echoed across the activist landscape—that cries of racial injustice are not new, but that many in the movement for criminal justice reform continue to underestimate the importance of racial equity. Nevertheless, George Floyd’s death did shift that consciousness slightly, people said.

“There’s a clear reality that racial injustice in the criminal justice system has been going on longer than a year or so,” said Keith Smalls, a community representative on the Charleston County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. “But what’s shifted in the year since George Floyd’s death is that our White neighbors have also got on board and said we need change to happen, particularly where law enforcement is concerned. When you look at the crowds protesting it’s not just Black people. It’s White allies too. And that has made a difference.”

Mr. Smalls said criminal justice reform will not be credible until more people who have experience of incarceration are brought to the decision-making table. But he expressed hope that senior executives at corporations across America are lending their weight to calls for change at the policy level.

“What we’re saying is no longer falling on deaf ears,” he said.

Jose Bernal is with the Ella Baker Center, and a longstanding community leader in San Francisco. He was the SJC representative on San Francisco’s Reentry Council, where he was part of the movement that successfully worked for the closure of a seismically unfit jail facility, 850 Bryant Street, in 2020. Mr. Bernal was incarcerated at the jail just under a decade ago and spent most of his time in San Francisco’s jail system in an isolation cell behind Plexiglas, under constant bright lights.

“The conditions of confinement I experienced never helped me in any way,” he said. “Instead, they just made my desire to end my own life stronger. I’m only alive today because my family always came to visit me and didn’t give up on me.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with Mr. Floyd’s death, brought about “a reckoning,” he said, which was a factor in the closure of the jail. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors had been talking about closing 850 Bryant since 1996. But for some of the supervisors voting for the closure, the reckoning was a factor in their support. Fifty percent of San Francisco’s incarcerated population are Black people, even though they make up fewer than five percent of the city and county’s population. “We still have a long way to go,” Mr. Bernal said. “But facilities like 850 Bryant are symbols of an era of mass incarceration we must get out of. We can’t erase our history, but we can create our future, and our elected officials have the power to lead us forward.”

In other jurisdictions too, elected officials have found support for reforms. Portland City Council in Oregon voted in 2020 to cut $15 million from the Police Bureau, eliminating 84 positions. One city council member described the budget as a “moral document.” Multnomah County, in which Portland is located, is an SJC site.

“We are at the cusp of meaningful change,” said Portland’s former Assistant Police Chief Kevin Modica, who recently retired. At the police bureau he was a member of the Multnomah County SJC cohort, and he is now an outspoken advocate for police reform. He continues to work on the mission of reducing racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system, particularly at the initial point of contact, which is usually through contact with the police.

“The profession of peace keeping must evolve if it is to serve the public in the best way, considering some of the toughest circumstances,” he said. “We need to reconstitute an agency at the right size, that is right-minded, and for the benefit of the whole community.”

In Cook County, Kim Davis-Ambrose works in the county president’s office for the Justice Advisory Council. She has been working with community advocates and consultants at Everyday Democracy to take the county through a dialogue to change process.

“People feel as though the justice system is a more sophisticated form of slavery,” she said. “They feel like it’s a money-making system, especially with the privatization of the prisons. And when you look at the police in terms of the inequities and injustices and how it has always been, their code of silence, how they overpoliced their communities, and how the accountability and the transparency [do] not exist, that’s hard. People feel the public defenders are not working with them. They feel like if you are arrested and have a criminal background, that never goes away. And most importantly, they talk a lot about how hard it will be to fix things, and how there is a lack of hope.”

It’s important not to deny or sugarcoat these feelings. But by taking people through an intentional process, Ms. Davis-Ambrose said they at least feel listened to, and begin to recognize the opportunity for change.

In New Orleans, Sade Dumas runs the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, and has seen the jail population reduced from thousands to 774 in her time in the city. Her organization was started in 2004 by a diverse, grassroots group of people with the shared goal of shrinking the size of the main New Orleans jail and improving conditions of confinement inside. It includes community activists, lawyers, service providers, formerly incarcerated people, and their family members.

Born in the majority Black and marginalized Lower Ninth Ward, which was devastated by poorly maintained levees that broke during Hurricane Katrina, Ms. Dumas remembers neighbors calling the police in her youth, and the police simply not showing up, just as rescue was slow to arrive for Black families stuck on their rooftops in the wake of the broken levees.

“It means the idea of defunding the police has a different connotation for me, because I grew up in an area where the police weren’t showing up even when they were technically funded,” she said.

Ms. Dumas said that the year since Mr. Floyd’s death has brought positive changes in the city—in particular, further reductions in the jail population—but that the changes continue to be gradual. A new, more progressive district attorney, Jason Williams, has promised to deliver change, she said. But at the same time, the local sheriff responsible for running the Orleans Parish Prison is pushing for an 89-bed psychiatric jail as part of the facility.

“We know that people living with mental illness do not belong in the jail,” she said. “And yet the sheriff has been pushing to house more of them, every step of the way. And the community is fighting him on this. People with mental health challenges leave that place worse off if they leave at all.”

On the state policy level, the 2020 racial justice protests have had an impact, but they have also meant it is important to tread carefully around the issue of race with state legislators to get policy passed, said Will Snowden, director of the New Orleans Office of the Vera Institute of Justice.

What I would share is the conversation about race in the South is still very polarizing,” he said. “So even when I go to the state capitol to talk about any legislation that we might be supporting, I have to do this calculus. Do I stay true to what the data tells me in terms of how there are disparities largely representing overrepresentation of Black men in our criminal legal system? Or do I talk about some other things and make race equality my second or my third point? I think I’m going to turn some of the legislators off.”

George Floyd’s death and the subsequent protests have brought a lot of attention and focus to policing in America, Mr. Snowden said. But “there is a polarizing effect that I think has been created from the movement that was inspired after George Floyd.”

Mr. Snowden said the polarization is “not necessarily a bad thing,” but that it “adds to the calculus that I have to do in my policy work.”

Thanks to the advocacy of Vera and others, including impacted people with the Voice of the Experienced, Governor of Louisiana John Bel Edwards just signed a bill into law restoring jury rights to people with felony convictions. Vera first tried to get the bill passed in 2019 when Mr. Snowden was talking more about race with legislators.

“I did talk about race, and the reaction that we got was a teachable moment,” Mr. Snowden said. “Because when we bought it up in 2021, we didn’t talk about race in terms of the benefits. We talked about how when people are returning home from prison, they paid their debt to society. They’re concerned about safety just as much as everyone else. And so, they should have the right to serve on a jury to vote in favor or against their fellow community member, just in the same way they vote for their judges and their state representatives. If we want people to reenter into our communities, restoring those rights as a part of that process is a priority.”

This time around, Mr. Snowden points out, the most important thing for his work is that the bill passed.

Dialogue and collaboration between community members and law enforcement leadership can still have positive impacts. Erik Bringswhite is a Native American activist in Pennington County, South Dakota, another SJC site. He serves on the local criminal justice coordinating group with law enforcement leadership and is focused on helping to reduce racial disparities and improve equity.

“When I first came on board, it was as a community member, and I had very little faith, or trust, or belief in the system,” he said. “But I’ve got to say that in personalizing and looking beyond the title of the person, like the sheriff, the chief judge, or the state’s attorney, and just having this human interaction and discussion, these guys have convinced me of their sincerity and the genuine efforts to really, really change the things that are not working for the community. That is huge.”

Likely Broad Impact for a U.S. Department of Justice Finding on Incarceration of People with Mental Illness

By: Ira A. Burnim

Courts Jail Populations Mental Health June 29, 2021

A pivotal moment has come in the long and complex effort to reform the U.S. criminal justice system.  The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has directed officials in Alameda County, California, to fundamentally change the way it deals with people with mental illness.

DOJ did so by issuing a formal “letter of findings“, taking the county to task for failing to meet the needs of people with mental illness and entangling them in the criminal justice system. Policy makers and lawyers are watching the situation closely, and the outcome is likely to have an impact far beyond the Bay Area.

The DOJ letter recognizes that people with serious mental illness can live productive lives in our communities. Many of them do so by receiving services funded by the government, such as mental health treatment, peer supports, and housing. Many others, however, do not get the services they need, and those individuals are disproportionately Black, Indigenous, and people of color. Among those who lack services are people commonly called “frequent fliers.” People with mental illness are repeatedly jailed for low-level offenses such as trespassing, shoplifting, and disorderly conduct. Their mental health care consists of visits to emergency rooms and short hospital stays. They typically lack stable housing. They cycle between jails, hospitals, and the streets.

The Cycle as a Single, Failing System of Care

The DOJ letter is a turning point in remedying the cruel trap that this cycle creates, harming people with mental illness, their families, and their communities. The letter recognizes that, as a practical matter, jails, emergency rooms, and hospitals operate as a single, failing system of care. The letter requires the county to abandon that failed system and instead provide community-based treatment and housing to people who cycle in and out of the criminal justice system. It directs the county to deliver evidence-based mental health services, such as mobile crisis teams, assertive community treatment, intensive case management, peer support, supported employment, and supported housing.

DOJ’s letter shows that the political and legal landscape is changing. The letter is a sign of new priorities, reflecting a changed federal approach to criminal justice reform. And it also reflects a renewed federal commitment to civil rights enforcement. Much of the letter is a legal analysis of why Alameda County’s practices violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal statute, enforced by DOJ, prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities, including people whose disabilities stem from mental illness.

Assuring that people who cycle in and out of jails get the community-based treatment and housing they need is not “pie-in-the-sky.” It is achievable. The expertise exists. The MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, which is helping to reduce jail populations across the country, has provided a blueprint.

First, we must identify the individuals who are trapped in the cycle and work with them to identify better ways of providing them services. Second, we must invest in the community-based services we know are effective.

Fortunately, new federal funding is available through President Biden’s new American Rescue Plan. It increases the federal Medicaid contribution for community mental health services, including an 85% federal Medicaid contribution for the cost of mobile crisis teams. It also provides new federal funding for housing.

Funding can come as well from savings generated by reducing jail populations. When people with mental illness receive needed services, far fewer go to jail. Far fewer people in jail should yield substantial cost savings, which can be reallocated to pay for an expansion of community services.

Third, we must shift responsibility from the criminal justice system to the mental health system. It is not acceptable to rely on the criminal justice system to address what is, at its core, a mental health care problem. Moreover, it is dangerous to have police respond when people with mental illness are in crisis or need services. Far too many people have been killed in such encounters. Fully one-quarter of the people killed in police shootings are people with mental illness.

The current system, which takes lives, also exacts an enormous financial cost. We are squandering millions of dollars on maintaining the trap of cycling. For example, it costs Alameda County in the vicinity of $120,000 per person per year for avoidable jail and hospital stays. For substantially less, it could provide an apartment and quality community-based treatment. It may be that Alameda County could fund the reforms sought by DOJ entirely from the money it spends on practices that consign many people with mental illness to repeated and avoidable stints in jail, hospitals, and the streets.

Taking these steps would dramatically improve, indeed transform, the lives of many people with mental illness. It would recognize them as deserving members of our communities with much to contribute. Taking these steps would also promote greater equity in the health care and criminal justice systems, since those who would benefit are disproportionately Black, Indigenous, and people of color.

No one should be caught in a futile system of harm. DOJ has now joined and given a big boost to the effort to dismantle that system and replace it with effective community-based treatment and housing. It will be a long road, but such systemic reform is within our grasp.

Jail Decarceration and Public Safety: Preliminary Findings from the Safety and Justice Challenge

By: Reagan Daly

Community Engagement Costs Diversion June 22, 2021

America’s over-incarceration problem begins in our local jails. Each year, there are close to 11 million jail admissions in the United States, nearly 18 times the number of yearly admissions to state and federal prisons. In many regions, jail populations have reached crisis levels.

The primary purpose of jails is to detain people who are awaiting court proceedings and are considered a flight risk or public safety threat. Many people admitted to jail cannot afford to post bail and may remain behind bars for weeks, months, or even years awaiting trial or case resolution. Our over-reliance on jails has negative consequences for people who are incarcerated, their families, and communities. Burdens of jail fall disproportionately on communities of color. Black Americans, for example, are jailed at five times the rate of white Americans and comprise a proportion of the jail population that is three times their representation in the general population.

In response, the MacArthur Foundation launched the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) in 2015, and has so far invested $252 million in the effort. Its aim is to help create fairer, more effective justice systems on a large scale.

The goal of the SJC is not just to reduce jail populations, but to do it safely – this has been a pillar of the initiative since its inception. Our previous research has highlighted the substantial reductions made in jail populations across SJC sites since 2015. But our new report provides an initial look at those decarceration strategies through a safety lens. More specifically, it explores how both aggregate crime rates and returns to custody among people released from jail changed after the launch of the SJC and the implementation of decarceration strategies in sites through 2019.

Reducing Jail Populations Without Compromising Public Safety  

Our latest analysis runs through 2019 and explores how crime rates changed after the launch of the SJC. It also analyzes returns to custody among people released from jail. We will explore COVID-19’s impact in future briefs.

Our analysis should be viewed as a first step towards assessing decarceration and public safety. Our measures rely on administrative data from criminal justice agencies, and as a result are reflective of the justice system’s responses. Future stages of our work will aim to explore public safety in a much more nuanced manner. For now, our goal is to lay a broad foundation of understanding about the trends we are seeing.

Findings suggest it is possible to craft decarceration strategies without compromising public safety. In fact, our measures of public safety across SJC sites remained about the same before and after reforms were implemented to reduce local jail populations.

Local Crime Trends Remained Stable or Decreased in Most SJC Sites

During the first few years of SJC implementation, 11 sites experienced a reduction in index crimes greater than 10 percent. The majority (19) either experienced some decrease or remained the same.

The Rate of Returning to Jail Custody Was About the Same

Among individuals released from jail pretrial, return to custody rates for felonies, misdemeanors, property crimes, and violent crimes within a year remained about the same.

Being returned to custody on a violent charge was rare before and after SJC implementation; being returned on a homicide was very rare. Most individuals who returned to custody within a year did not return on a more serious charge.

Regardless of the specific charge type, return to custody rates among those released pretrial did not change after the implementation of decarceration reforms began.

Prior to the implementation of SJC jail population reduction strategies, 38 percent of people released on pretrial status were returned to custody within 12 months of their release. (Note that our return to custody measure includes returns for reasons other than a new criminal charge—future work will focus more narrowly on returns that involve new charges.) This remained true in the years following SJC implementation – of those released pretrial in the second year of the SJC implementation, 39 percent returned to custody within a year. The vast majority of sites did not experience an increase in the return to custody rate after SJC implementation began.


The findings of this analysis suggest that decarceration efforts in SJC sites did not endanger public safety as measured by crime rates and returns to custody. As incarceration rates declined during the SJC, crime and violent crime rates also dropped or remained the same in most sites, mirroring national crime rate trends. When examining individuals who were returned to jail custody within a year of release, the rates of return were about the same before and after the SJC – suggesting that decarceration efforts, especially among the pretrial population, do not lead to a higher rate of returns. Importantly, returns to custody for violent crime charges and homicide charges were rare before and after the SJC. Of course, our measures are not inclusive of all definitions of public safety. Future work will examine the public safety implications of the SJC more comprehensively.

More on the Data

SJC sites share jail population data once a month with the Institute for State and Local Governance (ISLG) at the City University of New York (CUNY). A subset of sites submit detailed case-level jail data to ISLG once a year. We sourced crime data from the FBI 2019 Crime in the United States report.

Data Shows Violent Crime Is Down and Decarceration Works

By: Wendy Ware

Community Engagement Data Analysis Diversion June 22, 2021

The Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) has been making considerable, steady progress in safely reducing jail populations over the last few years. But the recent COVID-19 pandemic put a lot of these initiatives into overdrive, creating historic, sudden drops in jail populations all over the country.

Recently, you may have been reading in the press that there is a “crime wave” going on, and that it is related to either the COVID-19 pandemic, related lockdowns, protests, defunding the police, or social unrest.

These articles contain a lot of misinformation about crime rates, whether they are increasing or not, and what is causing them to change.

First, it is important to note, there is no “crime wave”. Second, while there has been a short-term increase in homicides, those increases cannot be linked to drops in the jail populations.

It is incorrect to link de-incarceration efforts to short-term crime trends.

Too often in criminal justice reform, people have a pre-determined narrative in their heads. It is easy for some people to push a “lock-‘em-up” agenda because it stokes fear, sells headlines, and baits clicks. These narratives often rely on cherry-picked data to fit their needs.

But the SJC has always been a data-driven initiative. It is important to always let the data speak first, investigate causation, and then, and only then, develop policy. A recent JFA Institute report, based on data from 11 SJC cities and counties, draws some key conclusions regarding recent jail population and crime trends. Amongst our conclusions is that crime as reported to police in general and violent crime in particular are not up across those jurisdictions.

It is wrong, therefore, to say “violent crime is spiking”.

“Violent crime” as categorized by the FBI under the UCR system (Uniform Crime Report) is made up of four crime types: homicide, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. In our report on 11 cities and counties, there was a short-term increase in homicides reported, representing a 45% increase from 2019 to 2020. This on the surface seems dramatic, but it is important to put this finding in context. Homicide is the rarest of all crimes and represents a small portion of the totality of violent crime. Homicides represent an even smaller portion of total crime, making up only .05% of the total crimes reported in December 2020. Further, in terms of the context of historical crime rates, the number of crimes committed each year are way down over the long term:

Much more time is needed before any credible scientist would say there is a trend.

Perhaps more important, it’s clear that jail de-incarceration has no causal link to crime trends.

Among our key findings:

  • Analysis of the eleven cities and counties studied revealed jail populations declined, yet crime and arrests declined as well, giving indication that declining jail populations did not compromise public safety.
  • Overall, total reported crime was 22% lower in December 2020 when compared to December 2019 and 14% lower for the total number of reported crimes for Calendar Year (CY) 2020 versus CY 2019.
  • When combining all jurisdictions. there was an average 39% decrease in jail bookings, which equates to over 130,000 fewer jail bookings in a one-year time frame. Jail booking decreases were fueled by the decrease in property crime and arrests, primarily for misdemeanor and lower-level felony charges.
  • As a result of the change in jail bookings, the composition of the jail populations changed post-COVID-19, with a higher proportion being male and charged with violent felony and non-drug felony crimes.
  • The length of stay for people in jail has increased due to the changing make-up of the jail populations and a slowdown in court case processing.
  • After the historic initial decrease, jail populations rebounded somewhat, but stabilized in October 2020. During this time, there was no substantial increase in overall crime.

The report expands on our preliminary report issued in December 2020, which focused on the Impact of COVID-19 on crime.

COVID-19 created the most dramatic decrease in jail populations, over the shortest amount of time in modern history. The pandemic gave us an opportunity to rethink old practices and consider changes for the longer term.

The data we produced should be used to start a conversation on how and why some specific crime types did increase in the time frame studied. And we should consider how to combat that, smartly. Answers include improving community relationships and cohesion, better community policing, and violence de-escalation initiatives.

At this time, we must resist short-term narratives that do not match the data. It critically important now and should be a lesson learned we can apply to the future sustainability of criminal justice reforms, both within the Safety and Justice Challenge and elsewhere.