America relies on incarceration as a response to crime more than any other country, and the problem begins in local jails. Jails hold 731,000 people on any given day, with devastating impacts on individuals, families, neighborhoods, and the economy. Research shows that even a small amount of time spent in jail before trial can increase a defendant’s chance of receiving more time behind bars and is associated with future criminal behavior.
While the primary purpose of jails is to detain those awaiting court proceedings who are a danger to public safety or a flight risk, they have come to hold many who are neither. Many jails have become warehouses for those too poor to post bail or too sick to receive help in their community. In fact, 75% of the population of both sentenced offenders and those detained before trial in jail are there for nonviolent traffic, property, drug, or public order offenses.
Innovative jurisdictions nationwide are already proving that it doesn’t have to be this way. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge recognizes that there are better, fairer, and more effective alternatives to excessive jail incarceration. The Safety and Justice Challenge will support a network of competitively selected local jurisdictions committed to finding ways to safely reduce jail incarceration.
Jurisdictions participating in the Challenge will develop and model effective ways to keep people out of jail who don’t belong there, more effectively reintegrate those who must be confined into the community upon release, and help them stay out of jail thereafter. In doing so, they will demonstrate alternatives to incarceration as usual, creating models for reducing unnecessary jail use to make communities healthier, fairer, and safer.