Funding Housing Solutions to Reduce Jail Incarceration

By: Kelly Walsh

Housing Interagency Collaboration Jail Costs May 18, 2022

Too often across county government there are siloes between efforts to reduce jail incarceration and efforts to house people. But a recent report by the Urban Institute funded by the Safety and Justice Challenge shows how cross-governmental collaboration can break down these siloes and address historic injustice which has contributed to the jail-homelessness cycle.

The report is based on learnings from three private roundtables we held in 2020 with practitioners, people with lived experience of jail incarceration, and subject matter experts across housing, behavioral health, and criminal justice. The purpose of the roundtables was to understand how gaps and lack of coordination prevent large-scale systems change in these areas. Specifically, conversation focused on analyzing how existing funding streams limit housing options for people with criminal justice involvement.

It is important for counties to understand the background of structural and institutional racism that connects housing and criminal justice challenges. Decades of disinvestment and exclusionary zoning have created barriers for people of color to live in some upper and middle-class neighborhoods. Even when affordable housing is created it often ends up in distressed and under-resourced areas. Disparate racial outcomes in our housing and criminal justice systems persist in part because solutions to racist histories are often focused either on housing or the criminal justice system, not the relationship between the two.

Counties are in a position to help bridge the housing and justice fields. Housing instability can both be a result and a cause of interaction with the criminal justice system. People with serious mental illness and substance use disorders, people with previous incarceration, and people in moments of transition (such as aging out of foster care)are all more likely to experience housing instability. an This diversity of factors calls for program and policy solutions that can minimize the risk of experiencing the justice system–housing instability cycle. Any effort to improve housing stability and reduce jail use must intentionally align the specific needs of the people being served and the activities pursued.

The report settled on the following four constructive approaches to addressing the cycle:

  1. Provide Housing Without (or with few) Conditions

The Housing First approach is an evidence-based concept grounded in the idea that people need housing before they can begin working on other challenges. Housing is a stabilizing platform that helps people overcome challenges in other aspects of their lives (e.g., substance use disorders, lack of employment). Housing First recognizes this and therefore does not condition housing on the achievement of sobriety, treatment, employment, or other milestones. Evidence shows this practice works.

  1. Support the Whole Person to Achieve Housing Stability

Housing stability is not just about housing. Supportive services linked to housing can help improve outcomes for people with mental health and substance use disorders, both of which can contribute to and be exacerbated by jail stays. Each year 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jails. Of those 2 million, 75 percent have substance use disorders. In many cases, people receive their first mental illness diagnosis in a correctional facility. Jails should not be substitutes for robust community-based behavioral health services. Instead, counties can shift resources to create housing solutions that provide holistic approaches and services to address underlying challenges such as mental illness and homelessness.

  1. Fund Multiple Pathways to Promote Housing Stability

Just as there is no single cause of housing instability, there is no single housing solution that can meet all residents’ needs. Counties should pair structured, clearly defined programs, such as permanent supportive housing, with flexible funds that can be used to solve a wider variety of underlying challenges for people who cycle in and out of jails and housing.

  1. Plan for Release before Release

Deflection from the criminal justice system should be the guiding principle for local policymakers, however, no community has eliminated the use of jails. The millions of people released from jail every year, many more than once, face unique challenges and require supports that promote housing stability upon release. Landlords and property owners discriminate against applicants who have any degree of justice-involvement. Public housing authorities may temporarily or permanently exclude people with some types of criminal histories, using their broad discretion when crafting screening and eviction policies. Where deflection and diversion are not successful, counties and local criminal justice and housing actors can embed housing planning at intake or other points before release for those with the highest needs.

Bridging Funding Gaps

To date, housing as jail diversion has attracted limited attention and investment. This is caused partly by the siloed nature of existing traditional funding streams and the inherent risks of experimental and innovative solutions. Strained state and local budgets present another significant barrier to addressing housing as jail diversion entirely within the traditional funding paradigm. However, the pandemic-spurred urgency to reduce jail populations, new federal funding streams, and continued growth and maturity in the innovative funding marketplace have created an opportunity to invest in solutions. We encourage counties to explore opportunities for impact investment to bridge gaps by tapping new funding that is faster, more flexible, and potentially more conducive to testing and scaling innovative solutions like these.

Actionable strategies are needed to improve coordination across the sectors, increase housing options at the point of diversion and reentry, and leverage the investments to make this happen. Counties and cities can help the housing and justice sectors to help people avoid justice system involvement in the first place, support successful returns to their communities, and target resources toward housing stability.

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.


Data Analysis Jail Costs Jail Populations June 22, 2021

Jail Decarceration and Public Safety

The CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance

This report provides an initial look at SJC’s decarceration strategies through a safety lens. More specifically, it explores how aggregate crime rates and returns to custody among people released from jail changed after the launch of SJC and the implementation of its decarceration strategies in sites through 2019. Overall, the findings suggest that decarceration strategies can indeed be crafted and implemented responsibly, without compromising public safety. In fact, public safety outcomes across SJC sites and in most individual sites remained relatively constant before and after the implementation of decarceration reforms.


Jail Costs Jail Populations Pretrial and Bail May 13, 2021

Removing Barriers To Pretrial Appearance

Evelyn F. McCoy, Azhar Gulaid, Nkechi Erondu, and Janeen Buck Willison at The Urban Institute

This case study, part of a series highlighting work supported by the Safety and Justice Challenge Innovation Fund, examines the experiences of Tulsa County, Oklahoma, and Hennepin County, Minnesota, which implemented strategies to reduce rates of failure to appear (FTA) in court and to reduce their respective jails’ pretrial populations. The Tulsa County Public Defender’s Office partnered with Uptrust, a California-based technology firm that builds software to help people navigate and successfully exit the criminal justice system, to implement a two-way text messaging app that reminds clients of upcoming court dates and reduces barriers to court appearance by connecting clients to an embedded social services case manager who helps them access services and assistance with basic needs such as transportation. The Minneapolis City Attorney’s Office, the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office, and the Hennepin County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee (CJCC) partnered with Hitch Health, a local health care technology company that connects patients with ride services to medical appointments, to implement Court Ride, which provides free rides to court and court-related appointments to defendants who lack reliable access to transportation.


Data Analysis Jail Costs Jail Populations November 19, 2019

Broken Ground: Why America Keeps Building More Jails and What It Can Do Instead

Vera Institute of Justice

Jail construction has vastly expanded America’s capacity to incarcerate people. In 1970, there were 243,000 jail beds in the United States, but by 2017, there were 915,100. This report explores the persistence of jail expansion by examining a convenience sample of 77 counties in 31 states that considered or pursued jail expansion between 2000 and 2019. From this sample, Vera researchers identified three major arguments county officials make to support construction: health and safety concerns due to overcrowding or aging facilities; the need to provide specialized services, including mental health and drug treatment; and the opportunity for revenue from renting beds to other authorities. The report also outlines negative or unanticipated consequences counties experienced from the decision to build or expand and provides examples of places that have pursued better alternatives to new jails.