Local Jails are the Modern Debtors’ Prison

Citizen Wealth Financial Justice

shutterstock_134827148New Orleans     The Vera Institute for Justice based in New York and operating for more than 50 years all around the United States and in some other countries released a report entitled Incarceration’s Front Door:  The Misuse of Jails in America.  The title is its own thumbnail summary.  The bottom line being that too many are warehoused in local jails with skimpy charges and no convictions just because they are too poor to pay their way out.

Their executive summary lays it out pretty clearly:


On any given day in the United States there are 731,000 people sitting in more than 3,000 jails. Despite the country growing safer—with violent crime down 49 percent and property crime down 44 percent from their highest points more than 20 years ago—annual admissions to jails nearly doubled between 1983 and 2013 from six million to 11.7 million, a number equivalent to the combined populations of Los Angeles and New York City and nearly 20 times the annual admissions to state and federal prisons. Not only are more people ending up in jail today compared to three decades ago, those who get there are spending more time behind bars, with the average length of stay increasing from 14 days to 23 days.

Although jails serve an important function in local justice systems—to hold people deemed too dangerous to release pending trial or at high risk of flight—this is no longer primarily what jails do or whom they hold. Three out of five people in jail are unconvicted of any crime and are simply too poor to post even low bail to get out while their cases are being processed. Nearly 75 percent of both pretrial detainees and sentenced offenders are in jail for nonviolent traffic, property, drug, or public order offenses. Underlying the behavior that lands people in jail, there is often a history of substance abuse, mental illness, poverty, failure in school, and homelessness. Moreover, jailing practices have had a disproportionate impact on communities of color. Nationally, African Americans are jailed at almost four times the rate of white Americans despite their making up only 13 percent of the U.S. population. Locally, disparities can be even starker: in New York City, for example, blacks are jailed at nearly 12 times and Latinos more than five times the rate of whites.

The recommendations are in some cases obvious, like allowing people a payment plan to get rid of fines and court costs they owe, rather than jailing them, which seems like “no, duh!”  Their basic pitch is for more community supervising options for low-risk offenders, similar to programs initiated in Georgia and elsewhere.  They recommend getting rid of “one size fits all” policing and probation routines to allow the focus to move to medium to high-risk offenders for example.  What Vera calls “reentry tools” also are important, rather than throwing people back on the street.  The report cites work some counties in Kansas and Tennessee have done that develop reentry networks to work with people  while still in jail and make plans for what and how they will handle going back home.