The City of Long Beach is located in Los Angeles County. The city launched a Connection to Care (C2C) initiative to connect frequent municipal jail users to behavioral health services. The city recruited and secured a C2C Graduate Fellow to coordinate the process, finalized a data-sharing agreement with Whole Person Care, and partnered with a transportation vendor to transport C2C clients to health and housing services upon release. While COVID-19 made in-jail services impossible, some resources were reallocated to support frequent jail users from the community coming into contact with the police. The City of Long Beach continues to engage with the Safety and Justice Challenge Network to rethink and redesign its criminal justice system so that it is more fair, just, and equitable for all.
Long Beach Department of Health and Human Services
Long Beach Police Department, Long Beach Justice Lab
By Laurie R. Garduque
Laurie R. Garduque is the director of criminal justice at the MacArthur Foundation
Originally published on washingtonpost.com on November 25, 2020 at 5:55 p.m. EST
The movement to end police violence against Black communities has brought heightened attention to criminal justice issues amid a global pandemic. The FBI recently released the 2019 “Crime in the United States” report, which looks at last year’s trends. The data is easily cherry-picked to push false narratives around what works — and what doesn’t — to fight crime. Here are some dangerous misconceptions to look out for.
Myth No. 1
Responses to the pandemic are driving crime rates up.
Since March, the coronavirus has created a public health crisis in jails, where social distancing is extremely challenging for people awaiting their trials. Many jurisdictions have released people who do not pose a threat to the community and have shifted their arrest strategies to keep people out of jail in the first place. Critics say the releases are leading to a rise in crime. For example, William Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, argues that “releasing individuals, who by definition are not safe to be among the public, in the name of improving public welfare is nonsensical.” Similarly, Kent Scheidegger, legal director of a victims rights advocacy group, the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, warns that “as the country reopens, the effect of releases will show in statistics as well.”
But the decrease in jail populations due to the coronavirus is not causing an increase in crime. Overall, crime has been steadily declining in recent years, and pandemic-related jail policies haven’t affected it. A new report from the JFA Institute looking at the impact of the outbreak on crime, arrests and jail populations suggests that reform strategies that have been in place over the past six months have reduced jail populations while not affecting crime. In places like San Francisco and Charleston County, S.C., the report showed that crime rates overall have not been influenced significantly by local justice systems’ responses to the coronavirus and that some crimes have fallen since the beginning of the pandemic. Studies have found that unnecessarily jailing people endangers the health and safety of individuals held in jails, those who work in jails and the broader community. Research has also shown that over-punishing people at low risk of committing more crimes turns them into people at high risk of committing more crimes — so we are paying huge amounts of money to create a public safety problem through mass incarceration.
Myth No. 2
Protests for racial justice are causing an increase in crime.
Demonstrations against the deaths of Black people at the hands of police have continued nationwide since the killing of George Floyd in May. Conservative media outlets argue that these protests are leading to an increase in crime. “What we have witnessed these past few tumultuous nights is not America. It is an anarchist’s dream,” a Washington Examiner columnist thundered in June. In the Wall Street Journal, Paul Cassell wrote: “What changed in late May? The antipolice protests that began across the country around May 27 appear to have resulted in a decline in policing directed at gun violence, producing — perhaps unsurprisingly — an increase in shootings.”
But contrary to the claims of some leaders that cities are “plagued by violent crime,” a new Center for American Progress analysis shows that violent crime rates decreased from 2019 to 2020 in more than half of the 25 largest U.S. cities, including New York and Seattle, and in some smaller metros such as Portland, Ore. The data also show that while homicide is up from 2019 to 2020 in five of the largest U.S. cities, those increases began before the protests started in June.
Some leaders say the only way to keep communities safe is to be “tough on crime” and lock up criminals. Attorney General William Barr has said that reform efforts are “pushing a number of America’s cities back toward a more dangerous past.” And in an opinion piece in the National Review, former deputy attorney general George J. Terwillenger III claimed, “Perhaps someone will figure out a way to neutralize chronic violent offenders without incarceration, but until they do the choice is simply to either put the repeat violent offender away or leave him on the street to make more victims.”
But research has shown that “tough” methods are a waste of resources. Tactics such as stop-and-frisk and the misuse and overuse of jails are discriminatory and do not keep communities safe. Someone who spends time in jail is statistically more likely to reoffend and end up back in the system. And a study from the Pretrial Justice Institute shows that as few as three days spent unnecessarily in jail can have collateral consequences for a person’s life, such as the loss of a job and health benefits and time away from family obligations. Cities and counties have been able to safely release people pretrial without seeing an increase in rates of rearrest or failure to appear. Rather than being “tough on crime,” investing in the needs of the community (and the people most affected by crime) is the most effective way to keep communities safe.
Myth No. 4
One year of crime data can show a trend.
Headlines — such as the New York Times‘ “In Emptier Subways, Violent Crime Is Rising” or the Crime Report’s “‘Steep Increase’ in Violent Crime Reported This Year” — suggest a record year for crime and that communities are unsafe as a result. This narrative is furthered by reports that cherry-pick data to undermine reform efforts.
In reality, analyzing crime rates is complicated. As we review the analysis of annual crime trends in the FBI’s report on 2019, we must keep in mind that historical context is key to ensuring a true “apples to apples” comparison. Year-to-year crime stats do not paint the most accurate picture; trends over decades do. Pointing to a current, or even seasonal, spike in certain crimes — for example, the recent jump in homicides in cities across the country — ignores that overall crime, including violent crime and homicides, is significantly lower now than in the 1980s and ’90s.
Many factors influence fluctuations in crime rates, such as the tendency for crime to rise in the spring and summer and decline in the fall and winter, or changes in policing tactics. An uptick or downturn in any one year doesn’t necessarily signal a larger trend.
Myth No. 5
Criminal justice reform means more crime.
We’ve seen leaders hesitate to engage in criminal justice reform strategies because they seem too new, nuanced or radical. Law enforcement officials and prosecutors across the country have been outspoken critics of policies to reduce or eliminate cash bail. Georgetown University law professor Bill Otis, nominated to the U.S. Sentencing Commission by President Trump, called efforts toward sentencing reform “more-crime-faster proposals.”
But cities and counties have been working for years to implement tested, data-driven reform strategies that keep communities safe while reducing the misuse and overuse of jails. This includes bail reform, which, despite the naysayers, has not been found to increase crime. In research released this month by Loyola University Chicago, scholars found the 2017 order by Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County Timothy
Evans to reevaluate the use of monetary bail in Cook County, Ill., increased the percent and number of people released pretrial without any associated significant change in new criminal activity, violent or otherwise,
nor any change in the amount of crime in Chicago after 2017. Though critics insist we need to choose between reform and safety, cities and counties are proving that this is a false choice — the system can be made more
fair, and all communities can be kept safe.
The Impact of COVID-19 on Crime, Arrests, and Jail Populations
The JFA Institute
Beginning in March 2020, local and state criminal agencies took several actions to mitigate the rising number of people being infected with the COVID-19 virus. To address these concerns, a variety of policies were enacted to reduce the number of persons held in jails. These polices were designed to 1) mitigate the number of people being arrested and booked into local jails and 2) reduce the length of stay (LOS) for those admitted to jail. Concurrently, public safety concerns were raised that by lowering the jail populations, crime in the community would increase. To address these concerns, the JFA Institute (JFA), through resources provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) program, began tracking and analyzing cities and counties participating in SJC and their jail and crime data in real time to monitor the impact of these mitigation activities. Among the key findings, analysis revealed jail populations declined, yet crime and arrests declined as well, giving indication that declining jail populations did not compromise public safety.
Here’s Why Jails Need Better Emergency Planning
CostsCOVIDInteragency CollaborationMay 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.
New York Times staff writer Emily Bazelon moderated a lively discussion of the Safety and Justice Challenge recently, featuring panelists from challenge sites in St. Louis County, MO and Charleston County, NC.
“I think the main thing to take away is that we have seen a lot of progress in our sites,” said Reagan Daly, Research Director with ISLG. “This progress started before the pandemic. We’ve seen even more dramatic reductions in jail population since then.”
“We have seen improvements in outcomes across different racial and ethnic groups,” Ms. Daly said. “When you look at people of color who are who are in the systems in these sites, we’ve seen that they have also benefited from these jail population reductions.”
Success begins with getting different stakeholders around the table, said Beverly Hauber, District Defender at the Missouri State Public Defender’s Office.
“We have so many different stakeholders in our meetings, it has allowed us to see change and to have really thoughtful conversations,” she said. “And nothing is going to change if you can’t sit in a room and be honest and discuss some of the things that the folks bring to the table and the opinions that they already have.”
“That’s one thing that I noticed,” said Ms. Bazelon from the New York Times. “Observing MacArthur’s work, the grant gives everyone a reason to take part in this, including people in the system who, you know, may be perfectly satisfied with the status quo and not super interested in changing it. But they have to sit down and be there once the grant has been accepted. And I think that it’s a carrot, I guess, instead of a stick. It’s interesting to think about that dynamic.”
These processes are helped by the presence of community representatives, said Keith Smalls, a previously incarcerated individual, and a representative on Charleston County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
“When you are able to have community representatives like myself to these conversations, and you can give opinions, and ideas, and even hear people’s complaints about the system, then take those back to the drawing board, it brings people back to the table even more,” he said. “The most important thing is we can get results and then take those back to the community.”
Laurie Garduque, Director, Criminal Justice with the MacArthur Foundation said there have been challenges along with the “quick wins.”
“One thing the process really impressed upon us was that these are local problems that require local solutions because the criminal justice system operates at the discretion of those lawmakers,” she said.
The panel also discussed challenges with diagnosing the cause of increasing length of stay at some sites. They also touched on frequent utilizers of local jail systems.
Ms. Bazelon, who authored the book, Charged, about transforming the criminal justice system, said that prosecutors often told her, when she was discussing the issue of frequent jail users around the country, “we’re not social workers.”
But tackling the issues faced by frequent jail users is a matter of having community will, said Wesley Bell, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney.
“I think that this country, with the most resources in the world, just has to have the will,” he said. “And when we decide to address the underlying causes of why that person is a frequent utilizer – generally drug addiction, substance abuse, and mental health issues – it’s not hard to do, it’s about having the will to do it.”
Reporters who joined the call asked whether COVID-19 has taught lessons about reducing jail populations that can be drawn on, into the future. It has, said the panelists, for example, jurisdictions have further reduced jail populations by reducing bookings and arrests, changing bail protocols, increased use of technology, and a focus on behavioral health for improving reentry chances.
Another reporter asked about the possible risk of withdrawing funding from a jurisdiction. Ms. Garduque responded by pointing out that the grants do not make up significant portions of any recipient’s overall budget. What they do is provide incentives for stakeholders to sit down and work together to solve common problems. And that once the relationships have been formed, the idea is to make them sustainable into the future.
The grant dollars give stakeholders a reason to sit down and form lasting relationships, said Ms. Hauber. But if the dollars were to go away, the relationships would sustain, she said. Reducing jail populations also saves jurisdictions money, the panelists agreed.
“When your jail population reduces by 30 percent, there’s an opportunity to reallocate funding in different ways,” said Kristy Danford, coordinator of Charleston County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. Ms. Danford’s SJC site sustainably reduced its jail population by 20 percent between 2014 and 2019, and has placed community engagement at the heart of its decision-making.
—Matt Davis is a communications consultant supporting the Safety and Justice Challenge blog.
Matt Davis is a Communications Consultant at the Safety & Justice Challenge.
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