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Cutting Jail Overcrowding

The MacArthur Foundation recently announced that it would invest $75 million in pilot programs across the country aimed at curbing the nation’s problem of jail overcrowding and overuse. There are almost 12 million jail admissions each year, which cost taxpayers a significant amount and (many argue) encourage increased crime in the future. About three-fifths of the nation’s jail inmates are pretrial defendants who are presumed innocent, but cannot afford bail.

The cycle is vicious – pretrial defendants who cannot make bail are imprisoned until their case progresses. They lose their jobs, housing, and stop earning money for themselves and their families. When their case finally comes to a disposition, they have lost a significant amount, even if acquitted.

In a major step toward addressing the problem, the MacArthur Foundation announced that 20 locations around the country will receive $150,000 each to tackle the problem. The goal is for these locations  “to plan experiments aimed at demonstrating that many low-level offenders and defendants waiting for disposition of their cases don’t have to be behind bars—with no harmful impact on public safety.” The ten locations with the most promising plans will qualify next year for a second round of funding, between $500,000 and $2 million each year, to put their ideas into action.

The project got some key support from the Obama Administration in an appearance by Michael Botticelli, the director of national drug control policy. The drug czar declared that the nation’s jails “are being used to detain the wrong individuals” and called for a “public health” approach to drug problems rather than  “punitive” criminal justice approach.

The plan also got a boost from Nicholas Turner, president of the New York City-based Vera Institute of Justice, which has advocated for jail reform since its founding in 1961. Turner alluded to the idea of “justice reinvestment,” which is being tried in many states, essentially reducing the inmate population and using the money saved on housing them for social programs to prevent repeat criminality.

Only time will tell, but the grants are a step in the right direction. The problems exist across the country, including right here in Burlington County, NJ.

 

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