The following commentary by MacArthur President Julia Stasch was originally published in USA Today April 14, 2016.
Jeffrey Pendleton died in a New Hampshire jail last month. The 26-year-old fast-food worker was arrested on a misdemeanor marijuana charge and could not afford $100 for bail. For an offense unrelated to public safety, he spent the last days of his young life behind bars.
This was not Pendleton’s first time in a local jail.
Homeless when he died, he once spent 33 days in a Nashua, N.H., jail after an arrest for walking in a park without permission. Aspects of his story—from repeated incarcerations for minor, alleged infractions to his death—are all too familiar.
Today, the debate over incarceration is mostly about state and federal prisons. But the overuse of local jails is also a crisis, leading to deaths like Pendleton’s and tearing at this country’s social fabric. Justice that is seen as harmful and capricious undermines the relationship between people and government institutions. The consequences extend far beyond the criminal justice system, compromising respect for the rule of law as well as the legitimacy of democracy itself.
Over incarceration is a crisis we must face. Fortunately, jurisdictions across the country are doing just that: taking significant steps to institute needed reforms. Together, their efforts offer the promise of real change.
The challenge is daunting. There are almost 12 million local jail admissions in the U.S. every year — nearly 20 times the number of prison admissions. Three out of four people in jail are there for non-violent offenses like traffic, property or drug violations. Most have not been convicted and are awaiting trial. Local jails are intended to hold people who pose a flight risk or are a threat to public safety. Instead, they warehouse people like Pendleton for non-violent offenses, often keeping them there when they cannot afford to post bail.
The heaviest burden falls on low-income people and communities of color, as well as people battling mental health or substance abuse issues. Latinos and African-Americans together make up 30% of the population but 51% of those in jail. Serious mental illness affects about 14% of men in jails and 31% of women — far higher rates than in the general population.
Asking jails to fix social problems they were not designed to solve is one of the greatest drivers of over incarceration, with destructive ripple effects. Jails are often a gateway to deeper involvement in the criminal justice system. Only a few days of detention can undermine health, limit job prospects and make future criminal behavior more likely.
These facts reveal a system that is unfair and ineffective, presenting taxpayers with a hefty bill, while causing harm to individuals, communities and society as a whole.
While the picture seems bleak, there is hope. Many local communities understand the challenges, and momentum is building for change. Jurisdictions across America are beginning to implement ambitious reforms designed to create fairer systems with better social and economic outcomes.
Charleston, S.C., will open a special triage center service to offer alternatives to jail for those suffering from mental illness, homelessness or substance abuse. Like other communities, Charleston is looking to deepen trust between police and the communities they serve. Part of the solution is providing law enforcement with the tools to do their jobs effectively beyond arrest or incarceration.
St. Louis County, Mo., will expand a promising pilot program that helps fathers pay child support before they miss payments — often a driver of incarceration of African-American men. Jailing fathers behind on payments does not increase their ability to pay. About 87% of participants complete the program, and its expansion will allow more to benefit.
New York City is building a public accountability website that will track progress in reducing case delays — the single biggest driver of the city's jail population. The city will also develop a tool that will match individuals with appropriate, targeted diversion opportunities based on their unique profile of risks and needs.
These innovations are not isolated examples, but part of comprehensive plans for system reforms, which jurisdictions across the country are now implementing and other communities can adopt. Our goal as a nation should be to make measurable progress toward ending the misuse and overuse of jails in America and to maintain fairer, more effective justice systems.
This is hard work, but there are smart, humane approaches to criminal justice that can ensure public safety while keeping millions of people like Pendleton out of jail, where they do not belong. Improved local justice systems will help heal our communities, restore faith in our public institutions and strengthen our nation.