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



A Shared Commitment to Transforming The Criminal Justice System

By: Matt Davis

COVID Featured Jurisdictions Jail Populations February 22, 2021

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.

The discussion coincided with release of a report by the Institute for State and Local Governance (ISLG), showing declines in jail populations by a significant percentage across the challenge’s sites. You can watch the full 51-minute video here.

“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.

We’ve Reduced Jail Populations, But There Is Still Work to Do

By: Reagan Daly

COVID Data Analysis Jail Populations February 10, 2021

The results are in: Three years of data from Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) sites across America show it’s possible to successfully reduce jail populations by a significant percentage.

The numbers show significant declines in overall and pretrial jail populations, and improved outcomes for people of color across the sites. Jail bookings are down, particularly for people charged with misdemeanors. But there is still work to do to build on the progress we have made. Racial and ethnic disparities persist in jail populations, and we have made limited progress on reducing length of stay and felony bookings.

Jails are intended to hold people who are awaiting court proceedings and are considered a flight risk or public safety threat. Today, 75% of people across our nation’s 3,100 local jails are being held for nonviolent offenses, and three out of five are legally presumed innocent. While many people admitted to jail are released within hours or days of their booking, many cannot afford to post bail and may remain behind bars for weeks or even months.

These and other burdens of jail fall disproportionately on communities of color: Black Americans are jailed at five times the rate of white Americans.

In 2015, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation launched the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC), a multi-year initiative to reduce populations and racial disparities in American jails. To date, the SJC has provided $217 million to help 51 jurisdictions in 32 states use innovative, collaborative, and evidence-based strategies to create fairer, more effective justice systems. To track the progress of reforms in the SJC jurisdictions, the Foundation engaged the Institute for State and Local Governance (ISLG) at the City University of New York (CUNY). Our latest report focuses on performance three years into the Challenge (through April 2019). Additionally, we have released a brief examining monthly jail population trends since the pandemic struck in 2020.

Digging into the Data

Our report tracked progress in 14 jurisdictions that have submitted case-level data for analysis from May 2016 to April 2019.

From 2016 to 2019, the Average Daily Population (ADP) declined significantly across the SJC sites, especially for the pretrial population. The decrease was 18% across all sites, combined. And for those who were being held pretrial, or were waiting action on their case, the decrease was 19% across all sites, combined.

While many outcomes for people of color improved, disparities persisted. Booking rates for people of color were down 5% or more in 10 of the 14 sites.
There was also an 11% overall decline in the over-representation of People of
Color in jail for misdemeanors. Despite that progress, the booking rate for people of color relative to that of White People was down 5% or more in only three sites.

Sites have made progress reducing the representation of misdemeanors in their jails. This trend was most apparent among bookings, where nine of the 12 sites providing data reduced misdemeanor bookings by 5% or more. However, there is room for improvement on felonies: only four of the 12 saw such reductions for felony bookings.

Length of stay is mostly increasing, but the interpretation is complicated. When looking at the average length of stay at time of release, six sites saw an increase of 5% or more while four saw a decrease of 5% or more. When measuring average length of stay among everyone in jail on a given day (also referred to as the “in-custody population”), nine of the 14 sites experienced an increase in average length of stay (ALOS), with six of them experiencing an increase of 20% or more. The increase in ALOS may mean longer case processing times, but may also reflect a reduction in bookings among people who are in jail for short stays. More in-depth analysis of these trends is needed to better understand what they mean.

Recent Jail Population Trends in light of COVID-19

Throughout 2020, as the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic set in nationwide, many municipalities—including SJC sites — implemented emergency measures to reduce their jail populations. Since COVID-19, Average Daily Population (ADP) and bookings were still below pre-COVID levels in most SJC sites.

There Is Still More Work To Do

After three years of implementing strategies to reduce jail populations, our findings suggest that jail populations can, in fact, be substantially reduced; and over the last year the COVID-19 pandemic has led to even further reductions in jail populations across sites and racial and ethnic groups. With all of that said, there is room to go further, especially in reducing racial and ethnic disparities which persist and in some cases are exacerbated as jail populations decline. There will be a deepening focus on addressing these challenges as the initiative moves forward. There also needs to be more focus on length of stay, which is a huge driver of the jail population in many of the challenge sites.

The early progress represents significant cause for optimism for reducing the over-reliance on jail across America. With further progress, we expect to see a further reduction of negative impacts on communities and families.

You can download a summary of the analysis here (link). Or you can download a link to the full analysis here (link.)

—Reagan Daly is the Research Director at CUNY’s Institute for State and Local Governance.


COVID Data Analysis Jail Populations February 9, 2021

Jail Population Trends During Covid-19

The CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance

Throughout 2020, as the extensive impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic became clear, many municipalities—including those participating in the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) — implemented emergency measures to reduce their jail populations. This brief describes how those measures influenced jail populations in SJC sites between February and October 2020. Specifically, the charts and explanatory text that follow illustrate how jail populations and racial and ethnic disparities changed during the pandemic’s early months. The brief is divided into three sections: overall trends, trends by race and ethnicity, and disparities.

Five Things COVID-19 Taught Us About Safety and Justice

By: Wendy Ware

Courts COVID Pretrial Services December 16, 2020

Necessity is the mother of invention, and cities and counties participating in the Safety and Justice Challenge have learned a great deal from measures taken to save lives during COVID-19. What’s more, many of these lessons will prove valuable in the years ahead, both as the world continues to fight the virus and afterwards.

With strategies to reduce jail populations already in place and key decision-makers already at the table working together, many SJC sites were better positioned to respond to the crisis than jurisdictions not already engaged in these efforts. For example, sites deployed new or existing Population Review Teams to identify those who could be quickly and safely released to prevent spread of COVID-19 in jails and the broader community. The stakeholder collaboration and evidence-based strategies already in place through the SJC allowed many sites a head start in mitigating the spread of COVID-19.

Without exception, all the cities and counties involved in the Safety and Justice Challenge managed to substantially reduce their jail populations during the pandemic, without jeopardizing public safety. In many cases, average daily jail populations reached levels lower than at any point in the last quarter century. For example, Buncombe County in North Carolina reduced its jail population by 42% at its lowest point, San Francisco County, California, by 35% at its lowest point, and Allegheny County in Pennsylvania by more than 30% at its lowest point.

Without exception, all the cities and counties involved in the Safety and Justice Challenge managed to substantially reduce their jail populations during the pandemic, without jeopardizing public safety.

However, local justice systems had varying levels of success in tackling the virus despite testing and control measures. East Baton Rouge Parish in Louisiana, for example, saw only one positive COVID-19 test at its pretrial detention facility. In Buncombe County, there have been no COVID-19 infections in the jail, largely due to a strict initial quarantine program and the ability to keep all incarcerated people in single cells (one person arrived at the jail with COVID-19 but did not pass the virus to others). Among detainees in Cook County, Illinois, a total of 1,096 detainees have tested positive as of December 11, 2020. Many people booked into the jail are coming in with the virus, rather than catching it inside the jail – further demonstrating that reducing jail bookings is critical to preventing spread of the virus.

How did cities and counties in the Safety and Justice Challenge respond to COVID-19? And what have we learned?

1. Reducing Arrests and Jail Bookings, Increasing Releases Helped

In cities and counties participating in the Safety and Justice Challenge across the country, justice system actors worked together to reduce the number of people being booked into jails, and to prioritize case review for people in custody so that they could be released, where possible. They also worked together to prioritize release of people with vulnerable health conditions, who could safely be released pretrial or while serving their sentences. There has been collaboration with police to issue summonses in lieu of arresting people on nonviolent misdemeanor charges, when safe to do so. Many cities and counties even suspended arrests for some felonies and for certain warrants which could be resolved in the field. In Clark County, Nevada, prosecutors aggressively screened cases and quickly diverted or dismissed those that were not likely to go forward or that didn’t present a threat to public safety.

In Multnomah County, Oregon, more people were released on their own recognizance. In New Orleans, the JFA Institute found that defendants released from custody had very high overall success rates — nearly 80% have no “failure to appear” or re-arrest. And 92% of defendants in the lowest risk category attended all required court appearances. In Allegheny County, three-month rates for people reentering the system who had been released at the start of COVID-19 were slightly lower than comparable three-month reentry rates of people released from jail during the same time period in 2019.

In Minnehaha County, South Dakota, justice system actors achieved a 53% reduction in arrests and jail bookings in March 2020, compared to the previous month. They attributed it to increased use of cite and release practices, and to setting lower bonds and operating a lower fine schedule. New Orleans Police Department reduced arrests for non-violent charges by 63% compared to the same period in 2019, with overall arrests down 59%. Lake County, Illinois, reduced arrests by 27%. The Baton Rouge Police Department expanded its cite and release policy to include traffic offenses, nonviolent misdemeanors and low-level felony charges.

2. Changes in Bail Protocols Have Proven Successful in Safely Reducing Jail Populations

Cities and counties across the country made substantial changes to their bail protocols during COVID-19. For example, The Los Angeles County Sheriff, with the support of the Public Defender and other agencies, instituted a policy of releasing anyone with $50,000 bail or less, in specified cases. The State Superior Court also reset bail amounts under the existing bail schedule to $0 bail for designated offenses. While the changes expired as part of the state’s emergency bail order in June 2020, Los Angeles County has extended this order locally to remain in place as part of the ongoing pandemic response. Clark County, Nevada shifted the burden of proof in bail hearings, requiring prosecutors to show why a defendant must be kept in custody. St. Louis County connected people in jail who couldn’t afford their bail with The Bail Project to help secure their release.

Despite some naysayers, we know this type of bail reform does not put the public at greater risk. New academic analysis shows Chicago area bail reform efforts since 2017 have not increased new criminal activity. Creative and evidence-based steps like these paved the way for other jurisdictions to follow suit and respond to the pandemic.

3. Technological Tools Kept Systems Operating

Just as new apps like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Slack have changed working life during the pandemic, technological innovations have transformed justice systems operations in the era of social distancing. Many sites began holding video and telephone appearances in their courtrooms, rather than in-person hearings. In Palm Beach County, Florida, a new text message court reminder system reduced failure to appear rates from 8% to 3%. St. Louis County bought tablets for the jail so that attorneys could conduct video meetings with their clients more easily, expanding on the Public Defender’s existing initiative to represent people at their first court appearance.  Probation and Parole Departments also instituted virtual check-ins that aided in reduced revocations back to custody.

4. A Focus on Behavioral Health Improved Reentry Success

Cities and counties have continued to invest in keeping people from being rearrested or being arrested in the first place. They have provided housing, food, medication, transportation, and other service referrals for people being released from jail so that they don’t cycle back into the system. Recognizing the importance of meeting these social services—which can be a challenge, particularly in larger jurisdictions—sites are investing more deeply in reentry resources. Palm Beach County, for example, has provided permanent supportive housing with wraparound services for 12 people experiencing homelessness with behavioral health challenges as part of a Safety and Justice Challenge-funded pilot program. In the two-year period before they were housed, these individuals had collectively been arrested 64 times and spent 704 days in jail.

5. Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities Will Require Renewed Commitment

COVID-19 further exposed racial inequities in America’s jails. In many cases, we saw racial disparities increase across participating cities and counties as a larger percentage of white people were released from jail than Black people. In Palm Beach County, Florida, for example, white people were twice as likely to be released compared to Black people from February to July 2020. In Buncombe County, the portion of jail population that is Black increased steadily from 23% in February to a high in July of 33%, compared to a county-wide population rate of around 8%.

How We Can Build on Our Momentum

Several cities and counties plan to build on changes they have made during COVID-19 to keep any substantial rebound to a minimum and continue releasing more people with low-level charges. For example, Los Angeles County plans to close its Men’s Central Jail within a year, reducing more than 3,000 beds from its pretrial capacity. San Francisco has already closed one of its jails. Meanwhile, Clark County, Nevada plans to keep its emergency measures in place until July 2021 and use the data collected to move forward from there.

—Wendy Ware is the President of the JFA Institute, which works in partnership to evaluate criminal justice practices and design research-based policy solutions.