Costs Featured Jurisdictions Racial Disparities April 26, 2022

Population Review Teams: Evaluating Jail Reduction and Racial Disparities Across Three Jurisdictions

Joanna Weill, Amanda B. Cissner, and Sruthi Naraharisetti

Nearly one-third of those incarcerated across the U.S. are held in local jails, mostly held during the pretrial period, before they have been convicted of any crime. Among those detained in local jails, Black individuals are disproportionately represented, making up more than a third of the jail population in 2019.

Within this context of a national overreliance on jail, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation launched the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) in 2015. This effort supports local jurisdictions across the country in their search for safe and effective ways to reduce jail populations and eliminate racial and ethnic disparities.

Currently implemented in more than a dozen cities around the country, jail Population Review Teams (PRTs) are one strategy to reduce jail populations. Funded by the SJC and with guidance from ISLG, the Center for Court Innovation conducted a quantitative research study of the PRT model and its impacts in three sites through the spring of 2020: Lucas County, Ohio; Pima County, Arizona; and St. Louis County, Missouri. Although the sites did not design their PRTs to explicitly reduce racial disparities, this project helps them to measure the impact of PRTs and continue to work toward disparity reduction.

The analysis found:

  • A small impact on the jail population: Ultimately, the PRTs examined resulted in the release of a small proportion of the total jail population during the study period.
  • A larger impact, once a case is reviewed: For cases that make it to actual review by the PRT, about half go on to be released.
  • PRTs can increase disparities: In St. Louis County, White individuals are more likely than Black individuals to be eligible and recommended by the PRT.
  • Small disparity reduction at early PRT stages is not enough: In Lucas and Pima Counties, Black individuals were slightly more likely than White individuals to be eligible for the PRT, but these differences were not sustained past the eligibility stage.

Together, the findings across the three sites suggest that a jail reduction strategy is unlikely to reduce racial disparities if it does not explicitly consider race during the development of program policies. In addition, the PRTs included here impacted a small percentage of the overall jail population. However, feedback from the sites suggests that as a supplement to other local efforts or a driver of broad policy change, the PRT model shows promise in building collaboration, engaging local stakeholders across the system in meaningful discussion about overreliance on jail, and shining a light on potential areas for future efforts.

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Community Engagement Costs Housing November 22, 2021

Funding Housing Solutions to Reduce Jail Incarceration

Madeline Brown, Jessica Perez, Matthew Eldridge, and Kelly Walsh at The Urban Institute

As counties across the United States search for ways to reduce the oversized and racially disproportionate footprint of our criminal justice system, many are looking upstream—to housing and the evidence that connects it to economic stability and overall well-being. This report presents four approaches to housing programs and policies that show promise to reduce jail incarceration and address structural barriers, as well as funding options for such approaches. The findings are based on an extensive literature review and three private roundtables held in 2020 with practitioners, people with lived experience of jail incarceration, and subject matter experts across housing, behavioral health, and criminal justice sectors. We identified the following investment-ready approaches that should guide the use of resources—public or private—aimed at reducing the impact of the jail system: (1) provide housing without (or with few) conditions, (2) support the whole person to achieve housing stability, (3) fund multiple pathways to promote housing stability, and (4) plan for release before release.

A Cautionary Tale for Counties Considering Big, Costly New Jails

By: Wendy Sawyer

Costs Data Analysis Jail Costs August 8, 2021

A recent debate in a small Michigan community shows how problematic debates over building new jail space can be.

It is critical that counties ask the right questions before deciding to build a costly new jail, because history has shown that expanded jails are quickly filled with people who would not have been jailed before, with serious personal and community consequences.

But too often these questions are not addressed, and the public and community leaders do not have clear and accurate information to inform decisions. This happened in Otsego County, Michigan, recently, and it should be a cautionary tale for other jurisdictions.

Correctional, law enforcement, and court officials in Otsego County, which has a population of about 25,000, have been pushing to expand their 34-bed jail to a 170-bed, $30 million facility for 15 years. They have solicited at least three studies to evaluate local correctional systems and recommend solutions to reduce jail overcrowding, and a close look at the local debate showcases confusing data, misleading statements, and misdirection from public officials in favor of jail expansion.

The Worst Jail Assessment We Have Ever Seen

A recent feasibility study produced for the county included a perplexing data analytics section. The data analytics section of the report was perplexing. In one graph, the scale appeared to change for no apparent reason. In 2019, the population of 24,985 appeared lower, not higher, than the 2018 population of 24,665. But the chart also showed the county’s population at 10-year intervals except for 2018 and 2019. It was unclear what people were supposed to take away from it.

Other numeric projections were strange. One meant to tie the need for a 253% increase in jail space to the county’s current 0.11% annual population growth rate. A summary of annual court caseloads from 2008-2018 also showed a trend of decreasing caseloads over time. A summary of jail bookings, average daily populations, and average length of stay from 2009-2012 and 2014-2018, showed that the jail typically operated at between 100-115% capacity before 2013, but has operated at 70-88% capacity for four out of five years since. The most perplexing sentence in the architects’ report called the jail population data “unreliable,” even though that data made up most of the report’s analytics section.

We asked David Bennett, one of the authors of the National Institute of Corrections’ Jail Capacity Planning Guide, to review Otsego County’s recent feasibility study, and he, too, concluded that it fell far short of a comprehensive assessment. He suggested that the county develop a criminal justice system master plan instead.

Resisting Best Practice Alternatives to Incarceration

Law enforcement and judicial officials complained to the consultants that, with the jail often near maximum capacity, they “have one hand tied behind their back,” and have been forced to come up with alternative sanctions instead of jailing people for the offenses they would like to. Ironically, many of the alternatives that officials complained about being “forced” to use are widely considered best practices today, including:

The Jurisdiction Hasn’t Answered Community Questions Well

Community members have received mixed messages from local officials in response to their concerns that the new jail will immediately be filled once police have a place to book more people and judges have a place to detain and incarcerate them. In a local newspaper series about the need for a new jail, the county jail administrator said that is “not necessarily true”: “We have great judges and I do not see them being overzealous and automatically going to the jail commitment.” But in the same article, one of those local judges commented:

“What it comes down to is it hampers my ability to do my job, which is to protect our community by creating this deterrent effect and this punishment. If I’ve got to give this person work camp or probation, I’m not accomplishing that goal because it doesn’t have the same effect as sitting in jail for 30 or 60 days.”

It is true that sitting in jail has a different effect than sentences that allow people to remain in the community, such as probation – but the evidence is clear that the costs of locking people up are much greater than the negligible, if any, deterrent effect of incarceration.

Multiple studies show incarceration does not reduce the likelihood of future violent crimes after release, and that incarceration increases the odds of re-incarceration. Meanwhile, even a short stint in jail can seriously destabilize individuals and families, and even short sentences to incarceration lead to long-term employment problems.


From a jail administrator’s or law enforcement official’s perspective, a bigger jail may be an attractive solution to overcrowding, but most Americans do not stand to benefit from bigger jails or the increase in arrests and detention that are certain to come with them. Yet they are the people expected to pay for these multimillion-dollar projects and the hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional annual operational costs.

We recommend that any county considering a new jail should first engage the community in conversation about their public safety priorities. Then, to reduce unnecessary jail usage, it should expand the jail alternatives the county has already implemented to keep people out of jail. It should change pretrial policies and practices that result in unnecessary jail detention. It might also implement new programs to minimize missed court appearances and the resulting bench warrants. We also recommend consulting a criminal justice system expert who will evaluate the jail as part of the larger local criminal justice system.

The National Institute of Corrections, part of the U.S. Department of Justice, has a Jails Division for the express purpose of offering technical assistance, information resources, networks, and training to local jail systems. Its services include help with jail and justice system assessment and planning.

Unfortunately, Otsego County’s “jail first” approach looked at the jail population alone as evidence of whether the jail is “big enough.” But a community should get a chance to understand how all the different parts of the criminal justice system are contributing to the jail situation before taking the huge and irreversible step of sinking tens of millions of taxpayer dollars into a bigger jail that will lock up more of their own.

The bottom line is that we hope more counties will avoid wasting taxpayers’ money on extensive spin campaigns like this one. There are best practices out there to follow so that everyone is kept safe without building costly and unnecessary new jails.

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.

Here’s Why Jails Need Better Emergency Planning

By: Ronald Simpson-Bey

Costs COVID Interagency Collaboration May 10, 2021

The Safety and Justice Challenge has reduced jail populations around the country. But it is clear that racial disparities need more focus as part of the work. And COVID-19 made that clearer than ever.

As strategic allies to the Safety and Justice Challenge, my organization brings people with experience of incarceration to the table. Our view is that the people closest to the problem are the best placed to fix it. You would not have a conversation about women’s reproductive rights without women at the table. And it is the same with criminal justice reform. It is important that these are the people driving these conversations. The people most impacted by the injustices in the system should be at the table to inform the policy and work being done.

Formerly incarcerated people saw how COVID-19 once again laid bare structural inequities in the jail system. Black and Brown people stayed in jail for longer than White people during the pandemic. And they died of COVID at disproportionate rates in our nation’s jail systems.

We have seen incarcerated people’s lives at risk during previous crises. During Hurricane Katrina the Louisiana authorities looked after stray cats and dogs fast. Meanwhile they left people to fend for themselves in Orleans Parish Prison. They left them for days without food, water, or adequate ventilation. Then they moved them to a bridge with the flood waters rising all around. In New York, there was no evacuation plan for people on Rikers Island during two hurricanes. Incarcerated people in New York were also charged with making hand sanitizer — while still barred from using the sanitizer themselves, since it had been designated as contraband.

State emergency plans include labor by the detained, including digging graves. That happened in New York during COVID-19. Or putting out wildfires. That happened in California. But they don’t include planning to save their lives.

We show that Black and Brown people are disposable in the United States when we fail to plan for emergencies. Our society, our elected leaders, and those in power are neglecting the safety of millions. This type of systemic racism is the result of the generational legacy of slavery. And it is critical to decarcerate the United States by changing policies.

Many people spend time in jail while presumed innocent, before they go to trial. And yet too often, COVID-19 handed them a death sentence.

For the last nine months we have been running a #JustUs campaign. It is calling on legislators to enact proactive solutions for emergencies. Particularly for incarcerated people. One result: On September 30, Senator Tammy Duckworth introduced a federal bill to protect incarcerated people during disasters. And we have introduced a legislative roadmap for the next three years. One of our big recommendations is to pass Senator Duckworth’s bill.

Likewise, at the local level we are training formerly incarcerated people to speak up and get legislation passed. The #JustUs social media campaign features advocates in ten key locations — Alaska, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, South Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Wisconsin — who have been incarcerated themselves, and who are demanding that their representatives create official plans to protect those in jails, prisons, and correctional facilities in the event of disasters.

It could be the difference between life and death, particularly in a world with increasing natural and man-made disasters. We need emergency management plans in place yesterday.

Our campaign’s policy recommendations cut across the criminal justice system, involving everyone from courts to jails to law enforcement:

  • Bring in experts in the field of emergency management and public health to create plans that anticipate every emerging disaster.
  • Empower the corrections agencies to act without legislative or judicial intervention after declaration of a pandemic or crisis.
  • Require corrections agencies to evacuate when necessary to decarcerate, utilizing public health triage mechanisms according to highest risk, i.e. pregnant women, people with respiratory illnesses, those over 50, and those within two years of release.
  • Provide medical and humane treatment to those remaining, by providing access to the necessary safety precautions and forbidding the use of solitary confinement as a means of meeting those requirements.
  • Halt transfer of jail intakes into state correctional custody.
  • Require judges to use alternatives to incarceration when possible to avoid detention at all costs.
  • Ensure that no one is detained because of inability to pay, including cash bail or any past debts.
  • Stop all arrests for technical violations and eliminate in-person reporting and drug testing
  • Replace arrests with law enforcement citations in lieu of arrest.
  • Build a strong network of reentry services to transition people and ensure their success and safety after incarceration.
  • Create an independent oversight mechanism and reporting to legislatures for enforcement and compliance.

The full list of recommendations and our comprehensive platform can be found here.

People can get involved by demanding that their elected officials have emergency plans in place to release our country’s and our community’s most vulnerable immediately in the event of future disasters. Your involvement can expand this platform to the other 40 States and the District of Columbia.

To learn more and join the #JustUs campaign, visit:

—Ronald Simpson-Bey is Director of Outreach and Alumni Engagement at JustLeadershipUSA