How to Use Our New Jail Trends Tool

By: Cecilia Low-Weiner

Data Analysis Incarceration Trends Jail Populations May 22, 2022

There is great news for people looking to understand how jail populations are changing across the country: The Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) has a new tool enabling anyone to track progress of SJC site jails.

The jail trends tool distills all the progress achieved across SJC sites since the Challenge began. Users can click through to different tabs to explore key trends across SJC sites and can drill down in each of these trends to view them on an individual site basis for a more nuanced local perspective.

We are also planning a series of accompanying briefs over the coming months, which will be available here as they’re released. Each brief will take a more detailed look at specific findings and provide additional context to help explain the trends.

Below is an overview of how users can interact with the tool and a highlight of some of the key findings.

Tracking Jail Populations by SJC site

One of the primary goals of the Safety and Justice Challenge is to reduce the misuse and overuse of jails. Users can select a specific SJC community to see how local jail populations have changed since before they joined SJC, to the most recent available quarter. Overall, SJC communities collectively reduced their jail population by 26% since the start of the SJC, resulting in 19,983 fewer people held in jail on any given day. While progress varies across sites, 15 sites reduced their jail population by 15% or more.

Looking at Pretrial Populations

Communities participating in SJC have successfully implemented a variety of strategies to reduce the pretrial jail population and ensure people can stay in their communities while their case is pending. Users can select individual sites to see how their pretrial population has changed. Overall, SJC communities have collectively reduced their pretrial populations by 18% since the SJC began.

Comparing SJC Sites to National Jail Population Declines

One yardstick for understanding jail population change in SJC communities is a comparison with jail population trends nationally. Overall, the population decline in communities participating in SJC outpaced the national jail population decline prior to the pandemic, and declined at a similar rate during the pandemic. Between 2016 and 2019 the national jail population remained flat. Among SJC communities that began implementation in 2016, jail populations declined by 11% during the period. After the onset of the pandemic SJC sites mirrored the national jail population reduction of around 27% between June 2019 and June 2020.

SJC Sites’ Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on jail populations – particularly on jail bookings. In this tab, users can select a community to see how the pandemic affected local jail booking trends. While bookings were declining across sites before the pandemic, bookings dropped substantially, by 57%, between February 2020 and April 2020. Since the low in April, bookings have been rising in most SJC communities. However, as of the most recent quarter, they are still below pre-pandemic levels.

Tracking Racial Disparities

The other core goal of the Safety and Justice Challenge is to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in jail populations. Since implementation, outcomes improved for people of color across SJC communities, but improvements in outcomes for White people outpaced those for people of color. Jail populations declined by more than 15% for Black populations in 10 SJC communities, for Latinx populations in six, and for Indigenous populations in one of four communities. Despite this, declines for White populations were greater. That resulted in persistent or increasing disparities. Users can view disparities for both jail populations and bookings both across SJC sites and at the individual site level.

Future Innovation

Now that the tool is live, we are working with SJC sites and other stakeholders to bring more findings to the public, including trends in length of stay, and further information on how the composition of jail populations has changed over time – in addition to making quarterly updates to the data already publicly available. Please check back regularly to see what’s new!


Courts Data Analysis Frequent Jail Users Incarceration Trends Probation Sanctions May 5, 2022

Trends in Jail Incarceration for Probation Violations

Rochisha Shukla, Ammar Khalid, Arielle Jackson

Urban Institute report on Trends in Jail Incarceration for Probation Violations

In partnership with the Adult Probation Department in Pima County, Arizona, and as part of broader research funded by the Safety and Justice Challenge to examine the impact on jail use of providing housing supports for people on probation in Pima County, the Urban Institute analyzed trends in jail incarceration for people with probation violations using datasets for overall jail bookings in the county from 2015 to 2020 and petitions-to-revoke for people on probation from 2016 to 2020. This case study summarizes our findings on patterns in overall jail bookings and petitions-to-revoke and, for the probation population in jail, analyzes average lengths of stay and patterns by race and ethnicity and sex.

Beyond Jails: Community-Based Strategies for Public Safety

By: Matt Davis

Featured Jurisdictions Human Toll of Jail Incarceration Trends November 23, 2021

For decades, the United States has responded to social issues like mental health and substance use crises, chronic homelessness, and ongoing cycles of interpersonal violence with jail incarceration rather than pursuing innovative strategies that are better suited to address the root causes of these issues. Jail incarceration has disrupted the lives of millions of people—disproportionately harming Black, Indigenous, and people of color—without improving public safety. There is a better way.

Communities can instead invest in agencies and organizations that address these issues outside the criminal justice system. The proven solutions highlighted in a new report released by the Vera Institute of Justice with support from the Safety and Justice Challenge look beyond jails to promote safe and thriving communities.

To be responsive to residents’ needs and account for the harm caused by incarceration, jurisdictions across the country must look for public safety solutions outside of the criminal justice system. Effectively ending the current dependence on jail incarceration requires an ecosystem of services and supports that enhance the mental, physical, and socioeconomic well-being of the people who have been most marginalized.

The report looks in depth at what methods are working to reduce jail use. They include responding to behavioral health crises without incarceration, using crisis call centers, mobile crisis response teams, crisis stabilization measures and other services instead of police and jails. Incarceration will not address chronic homelessness, but permanent supportive housing can. And some jurisdictions are interrupting cycles of violence without incarceration by adopting a public health approach that includes investment in community violence intervention programs.

Some example programs in cities and counties participating in the SJC include:

  • Started in 2021, the Portland Street Response (PSR) in Multnomah County, Oregon, is a specialized mobile crisis response program designed to reduce police interaction with people who are experiencing homelessness and/or behavioral health issues. When a 911 call involving these issues comes in, PSR dispatches specially trained medics alongside peer support specialists who have direct experience with similar challenges. In addition to providing care for non–life-threatening medical issues and connecting people to services, the team may provide transportation to shelters, clinics, or another destination the person being helped selects.
  • In Cook County, Illinois, the Westside Community Triage and Wellness Center provides urgent behavioral health care and serves as a hub to connect the neighborhood’s largely Black and Latinx residents to ongoing behavioral health services. In Pima County, Arizona, the Crisis Response Center offers 24/7 access to care resources for people who are experiencing behavioral health crises to avoid jail or emergency room settings.
  • In Baltimore, Maryland, the Baltimore Community Mediation Center provides mediation services for people experiencing any stage of conflict, including mediation within jails and prisons for people approaching reentry. To ensure mediation services are accessible, the center partners with other public services and community-based organizations. In 2018, with help from around 60 volunteers, the center held close to 600 mediation sessions at more than 130 different locations around the city.
  • In multiple cities around the United States, Cure Violence has reduced shootings by adopting a public health approach called Community Violence Intervention (CVI). It conducts public education campaigns to change attitudes about violence, seeking to build relationships with people who are most likely to engage in violent behavior. It relies on “credible messengers,” people who have lived experience with violence in neighborhoods, to perform outreach and intervention.

The report also focuses on grassroots strategies to elevate community expertise, and on effective collaboration with community-based organizations.

  • For example, JustLeadershipUSA in New York City—a strategic ally of the Safety and Justice Challenge—is a power-building movement led by organizers directly impacted by the criminal justice system. In 2020, the organization created the #buildCommunities Platform 2.0, a large-scale vision-building exercise conducted in association with the #CLOSErikers campaign. Over three months, the collaborative convened assemblies in eight different neighborhoods in New York City that had been heavily impacted by incarceration and divestment. Conveners facilitated sessions for groups of residents to present, discuss, and workshop ideas together to identify where investment is needed to improve safety and well-being. The vision contributed to a multi-campaign effort that generated a $391 million city commitment to non–criminal justice system programming and resources.
  • In 2019, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors established a public-private Work Group on Alternatives to Incarceration. The group convened dozens of representatives from nonprofit organizations, service providers, and state and local governments to explore better responses to the “human conditions” of homelessness, poverty, and behavioral health issues. Their work involved creating a roadmap for solutions that provide care and services first and make jail a last resort, a process that engaged government and community residents to think broadly and boldly about strategies for public safety. The group produced more than 100 recommendations to minimize the use of police and jails.

Vera’s report also highlights why criminal justice system responses to these social issues are not enough. Many current approaches to reducing the use of jails fail to address many of the underlying drivers of jail incarceration that would be better addressed through other agencies, organizations, and community-led efforts—unstable housing, poverty, limited educational opportunities, poor health, and inadequate access to services. Moreover, most current local justice reform approaches also fail to account for the racialized harm caused by decades of investments prioritizing criminal justice system agencies over community-based services and often ignore problematic system practices. These shortcomings limit both the efficacy and the reach of many reform efforts.

Ultimately, a network of community-based services and supports could go a long way to address criminalized behaviors in ways safer and more effective than jails.

Why We Must Keep Clear Heads as We Look at the FBI’s Annual Crime Stats

By: James Austin

Data Analysis Human Toll of Jail Incarceration Trends September 23, 2021

The FBI’s annual crime stats report is due out on Monday. In more than a quarter century of correctional planning and research, I’ve seen a variety of reactions to these numbers—including plenty of fearmongering and distortion. But there has never been a better time for us to keep a clear head and take an objective look.

What We Already Know

There are a few things we already know even before the FBI releases the data. Overall, serious crimes went down, not up, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet polling showed the American public believed there was more crime in the United States than there was a year before. It isn’t true.

One of the reasons crime dropped in 2020 was the COVID-19 lockdown itself, which restricted social interactions that can lead to criminal activity.  But the pandemic also gave many jurisdictions the opportunity to implement needed law enforcement court processing reforms that have resulted in fewer arrests for low-level crimes, fewer jail bookings, and reduced jail and prison populations. All of this occurred without an increase in overall crime rates.

It is true, however, that in many places in the country homicide and shootings increased in 2020. But most other forms of violent crime either have not risen as steeply or have dropped during the same period. Moreover, there is growing evidence that in cities where the homicide rate turned markedly up, the increase is slowing. These are the findings presented in a report by the Council on Criminal Justice, a non-partisan organization that works to advance understanding of the criminal justice policy choices facing the nation, which has been studying the effects of the pandemic on the justice system.

Putting New Data in Historical Perspective

It’s also important to keep a sense of historic perspective looking at the numbers.

Crime rates have dropped by more than half since 1995. Homicides, the rarest of all crimes, have also declined. But as the chart below shows, homicide rates since 1900 have shown a lot of fluctuation, ranging as high as 12 per 100,000.  And the “jump” in homicides from 2019 to 2020 is likely to be from five per 100,000 people to about six per 100,000. That means there was a one-one-hundredth percent change in the homicide rate, which is statistically insignificant and not at all out of line with historic fluctuations.

There have been similar and even higher changes in the homicide rate, for no apparent reason. One must concede that a large portion of changes (up and down) in the homicide rate is random.


That’s not to say we should not be concerned about any increase, or for that matter, any one homicide. But equating a rise in homicides with an increase in crime rates when crime rates have declined is misleading the public.

The Role of Criminal Justice Reforms in Addressing Homicides

Homicides are concerning especially for those people who live in areas where they occur most frequently. But the increase calls for a thoughtful response, including focused law enforcement resources and community-based anti-violence programs. Intervening earlier in the lives of people who commit homicides is a far more positive and effective approach to reducing homicide rates.

Predictably, commentators and editorial boards will be eager to pin the blame for the rise in homicides on a “lax” criminal justice system, “progressive” prosecutors, bail reform, and declining jail and prison populations. They’ll tell you police have lost their motivation to do their jobs because of calls for accountability over violence and racial justice. But that’s not what is likely to be reflected in the numbers.

The solution to homicides is to spend money more smartly on targeted approaches. Not prey on people’s misplaced fears to justify indiscriminate spending on ineffective public policy.

What Can We Learn from the Misdemeanor Diversion Program in Durham County, North Carolina?

By: Kelly Andrews

Diversion Incarceration Trends Pretrial Services August 3, 2021

A successful misdemeanor diversion program at a Safety and Justice Challenge site in Durham County, North Carolina, can serve as inspiration for jurisdictions across the country as they seek to reduce jail populations and preserve public safety.

The diversion program shows collaboration between law enforcement and community groups in Durham County, and is the subject of an initial process evaluation by the Urban Institute, which you can download here.

The Urban Institute has not yet completed an accompanying outcome evaluation to see how the perceived impacts reported by relevant stakeholders align with measurable impacts available through local metrics —it is forthcoming in fall of 2021. But the county has been tracking its own numbers and it estimates that just under 800 people have gone through the program since 2014, with 99 percent of participants completing it. Of those, about 95 percent remain out of trouble after a year. Again, the Urban Institute—which is renowned for its rigorous, independent research—has yet to verify those numbers as an independent evaluator of the program. But in the meantime, the county is displaying them on its public-facing website as early evidence of the program’s success.

The Misdemeanor Diversion Program (MDP) began in 2014 to keep children out of the criminal justice system, because North Carolina had such antiquated laws related to minors. Until the ‘Raise the Age’ legislation passed in December, 2019, the state was automatically charging 16 and 17-year-olds as adults in the justice system and giving them adult criminal records.

The program allows law enforcement officers in Durham County to redirect people accused of committing their first misdemeanor crime(s) to community-based services in lieu of citation or arrest. What is unique about the program is that it occurs prearrest and pre-charge, meaning someone law enforcement officers may believe has committed a crime is not arrested or charged and does not formally enter the justice system in any way.

The program expanded to benefit adults up to 26, with older adults at law enforcement discretion. And other jurisdictions have replicated it across the state. It was based on a simple foundational principle: The need to avoid involvement in the justice system, where possible. It aimed to be as unrestrictive as possible while providing participants with the support necessary to move forward positively.

In the first week, the program got just two referrals. But a key element of the program’s success came in 2016 when the Durham Police Chief at the time created an executive order, taking discretion away from Durham Police officers and making referral of eligible individuals to the program mandatory for the Department.

The need for a program like the MDP in Durham County was well articulated by county stakeholders and participants who participated in the process evaluation. All stakeholders feel that people—youth in particular—do not need to be arrested and deserve “a second chance,” as some put it, if they do not pose a threat to public safety. Members of local law enforcement also believe the program has been useful and impactful. However, many local stakeholders believe that the community still needs more prearrest diversion opportunities whenever possible.

The program is cost effective and began with a grant, but it is now part of the county’s regular budget, demonstrating that it is replicable in other jurisdictions, with the right support and buy-in from local authorities.

Racial equity was also discussed during the conception of the program—given the disproportionate numbers of Black people in the county’s jail. Around three quarters of participants in the diversion program have been people of color.

Through interviews, we found that community stakeholders and program participants believe the MDP is impactful, particularly in that it diverts people from being charged with a crime and entering the justice system. Interviewees also generally believe the program was deeply needed in Durham County because too many people were being unnecessarily arrested and incarcerated.

Our process evaluation yielded four key takeaways for jurisdictions interested in replicating the MDP. First, buy-in from law enforcement is critical because it is needed to start the diversion process. Second, support from local leaders, such as elected officials, will help develop local law enforcement buy-in and support. Third, qualified program staff with deep community connections are essential. And fourth, a philosophy of keeping people out of the justice system altogether will lead to increased participant satisfaction and reduce collateral consequences associated with any justice involvement.

None of the interviewed stakeholders expressed resistance to the program, but several noted that when it was being developed, there was notable resistance from law enforcement agencies and law enforcement associations. Most of that resistance involved concern among local law enforcement officers that the program could take away their ability to determine whether an arrest could be made in certain situations, an ongoing concern during the early years of program implementation. In addition, numerous officers believed this type of program would infringe on their ability to perform their duty and would override their power to use discretion. Over time—through trainings, interactions with the program staff and participants, and changes in law enforcement leadership—law enforcement agencies generally became more supportive of the program.

Several stakeholders strongly support the program but believe it does not “do enough” (in the words of one interviewee) to reduce countywide arrests and incarceration. They want it to expand eligibility requirements to include more offenses, including additional misdemeanor charges and some felony charges. Simply put, many stakeholders feel the program has positively impacted participants but that too few people have been able to participate, leaving more people involved in the local justice system than necessary.

Some stakeholders criticized the program for making eligibility requirements too restrictive and not allowing enough access the program, which they consider essential to diverting people from the criminal justice system pre-charge. Many interviewees believe other communities would benefit from implementing similar programs to divert people from the justice system.

We encourage people to read the full process evaluation and to develop their own diversion programs based on what has been learned in North Carolina.