County leadership, strategic partnerships key to local justice reform

By: Matthew Chase

Data Analysis Featured Jurisdictions Interagency Collaboration July 27, 2017

Providing health care and ensuring public safety are top priorities for the nation’s 3,069 county governments.  Collectively, counties invest more than $70 billion annually in justice and public safety services and an additional nearly $70 billion in health and human services. Though no two counties face the exact same challenges or provide services in the same way, sharing information and experiences across jurisdictions can facilitate changes to local justice and health systems.

There are more than 11 million admissions to jails annually, and many admitted individuals stay in jail for weeks or months. Counties interact with many of the individuals not only through the justice system, but often simultaneously to address their health and human services-related needs.  Jails spend two to three times more on people with mental illnesses than they do on people without these needs, yet often don’t see improvement in individuals’ recovery or rates of recidivism.

While the challenges are great, counties are taking action and improving how they administer justice and health programs. Advances in pretrial justice, connection to health care services, and reenergized national attention on the potential of local justice systems to achieve significant reform position county leaders to build on current efforts and explore new opportunities to ensure safe and secure counties. County elected officials are well situated to lead and support such local justice reform.

In Mesa County, Colorado—a jurisdiction in the Safety and Justice Challenge Network— leaders have implemented pretrial risk assessments and supervision activities for low-risk defendants, which has resulted in 88 percent of these individuals remaining crime-free before trial and 93 percent making their court appearances. Bexar County, Texas has developed multiple programs and practices to divert individuals with mental illness and co-occurring substance use disorders to treatment while reducing contact with the justice system, which often pulls individuals in for long periods of time. Working with the various local stakeholders, these counties and many others like them have developed local justice system reforms tailored to their community’s challenges.

Counties such as these have spearheaded efforts to create effective and efficient systems while maintaining public safety, but there is more to learn and share. The Safety and Justice Challenge will provide insight into opportunities all counties can tailor to meet their local reform needs. The National Association of Counties (NACo) is pleased to support the Safety and Justice Challenge’s efforts and provide a platform to share information and exchange experiences through NACo meetings and conferences. NACo has also partnered with the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the American Psychiatric Foundation to lead a national initiative,, to help advance counties’ efforts to reduce the number of adults with mental and co-occurring substance use disorders in jails. Through our work with philanthropic organizations, national partners, and counties, we look forward to building on the many innovative and proven practices being implemented across the country.