A Big New Attack on America's Wasteful and Unjust Jail System Gains Steam

The MacArthur Foundation may be trimming its sails in some areas, like winding down its housing work, but that hasn't stopped it from launching a new effort to reform America's wasteful and unjust system of jails. 

As we reported earlier this year, the foundation is putting up $75 million over the next five years to reform how U.S. jails operate, a new initiative that instantly made MacArthur one of the biggest funders of criminal justice reform in the countryand at an opportune moment when the pendulum is swinging fast against yesterday's Draconian anti-crime policies. (The foundation has long worked on juvenile justice issues.)

Related As the Odds Improve, MacArthur and Other Funders Step Up Fight for Criminal Justice Reform

Now the foundation has announced its winners for the Safety and Justice Challenge, awarding $150,000 to 20 jurisdictions across the U.S to foster innovation and reduce the use of jails. 

A key distinction to keep in mind is that this money is going to fix jails, not prisons. Jails are where you go when you are awaiting trial. Jails are some of the most antisocial lock-up environments, and costly, too. Jail populations have more than tripled since the 1980s, and spending on jails has skyrocketed. 

And the most screwed up part: Many of the people housed in jails do not pose a significant threat to public safety, and don't really need to be there. The Vera Institute reports that nearly 75 percent of the people in jail are being held for nonviolent traffic, property, drug, or public order offenses. Many languish in jail simply because they can't make bail, even as they are presumed innocent. This is the population that these Safety and Justice Challenge winners will be aiming to help, looking for ways to re-route nonviolent offenders into other settings and find other ways to beat back the flow of new detainees. 

After a highly competitive selection process that drew applications from nearly 200 jurisdictions across 45 states and territories, the winners will receive both funding and expert consultation in program development. From this group, 10 jurisdictions will be selected in 2016 to go on for a second round of fundingbetween $500,000 and $2 million annually, depending on the size of the jurisdictionto implement their reform plans.

Several large cities will receive these funds, including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Houston. Other, smaller localities like Mesa County, CO, and Pennington County, SD, and the State of Connecticut, have also been selected. Taken together, the selected jurisdictions represent 11 percent of the nation’s jails capacity, so these initiatives have the potential to impact this problem significantly in a diverse array of settings. 

An important note for areas of the country not on the list: Due to the high volume of applications that MacArthur received to the challenge competition, the foundation will be creating new opportunitiesopen to jurisdictions across the countryfor funding to support training, technical assistance, and promising local innovations that seek to reduce jail use. So don't give up on your jail reform ideasapply again!

What kinds of ideas are communities trying? Programs that work to release nonviolent offenders on recognizance rather than money bail have shown promise. Other efforts will work to divert jail populations to other community settings and reduce the number of days a person is held in jail before seeing a judge.  

My own two cents: Help people, particularly ex-offenders, access housing, and you will see fewer of them turn up in jail. MacArthur may be getting out of the housing sector, but certainly, the foundation is aware of the massive overlap of homelessness and incarceration, and the discrimination against people with criminal records seeking housing. We don't know yet the full programmatic plans of the 20 Safety and Justice Challenge winners, but hopefully some of them will target improved housing options for ex-offenders and other marginalized populations as a way to reduce jail populations. 

And the winners are:

· Ada County, ID
· Charleston County, SC
· Cook County, IL
· Harris County, TX
· Los Angeles County, CA
· Lucas County, OH
· Mecklenburg County, NC
· Mesa County, CO
· Milwaukee County, WI
· Multnomah County, OR
· New Orleans, LA
· New York City, NY
· Palm Beach County, FL
· Pennington County, SD
· Philadelphia, PA
· Pima County, AZ
· St. Louis County, MO
· Shelby County, TN
· Spokane County, WA
· State of Connecticut

Related: What's New in MacArthur's Long Battle to Reform Juvenile Justice?