The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, December 18, 2019 1:00 am


Behind bars

A sharper focus on jail alternatives

A new estimate of jail populations nationwide shows some startling trends worth paying attention to as Indiana communities struggle with crowded jails and overloaded justice systems. As decisions loom about how to use the new Allen County residence center on Venture Lane, the report underscores the importance of such facilities and the need to keep widening alternatives to traditional incarceration.

Over the past six years, jail populations in the nation's largest metropolitan areas have declined by 18%, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit group that advocates for prison and jail reform. For some large cities, the change has been even more dramatic. In mid-2019, Chicago's jails held 42% fewer inmates than in 2013. Philadelphia's jail population was down 41% during the same period, and Nashville's number of inmates dropped by 28%. Jail populations in those cities' surrounding suburban counties also dropped by 1%.

Despite the plummeting incarceration rates in big urban jails, the inmate population nationally is 758,400, the highest it's been since 2009, according to Vera. That's because the jail population in rural areas is 27% higher than it was six years ago, the institute estimates, and jails in small towns and midsize urban areas such as Fort Wayne have increased their inmate populations by 7%. 

Much of that increase is attributed to the opioid crisis. The numbers suggest larger cities are making more progress in providing alternatives to jail for nonviolent substance abusers. “In the big city, you get a ticket and a trip to the clinic,” Jacob Kang-Brown, a senior research associate at the Vera Institute of Justice, told the New York Times last week. “But in a smaller area, you might get three months in jail.”  

The difference may also be explained by how larger metropolitan areas now handle other types of offenders, especially those awaiting trial. “Most people in jail have not been convicted of the charges they are facing,” the Vera report said, “and many are being detained in civil matters, such as people incarcerated pretrial for immigration cases or those incarcerated due to unpaid child support or fines and fees.” 

In an interview Tuesday, Kang-Brown suggested jail incarceration rates are also dropping in big cities because more people in those areas are better off economically.

“If you have a pretty good job, it's harder to get into the jail system,” he said, because you are more likely to be able to hire a lawyer and pay bail. That could be another reason areas such as northeast Indiana that have low wages and underemployment are still struggling with growing inmate populations.   

A natural question is whether lower incarceration rates lead to higher crime rates, but such a correlation doesn't appear to exist. “For almost all these places,” Kang-Brown said, “they've seen stable or relatively declining crime rates.” 

Chicago, a city where murders and other violent crimes were epidemic in recent years, has registered a big drop in homicides, nonfatal shootings and other crimes in 2019. Chicago police creditsolving more homicides and getting guns off the street; Fort Wayne has used similar strategies this year, with similar results.

Keeping more people in jail costs taxpayers more money, of course. The Allen County Jail population has been lower in recent days – Tuesday, the facility was right at capacity, with 741 inmates. This year, though, the facility has often held 800 or more inmates. Some say the answer is building a new and much bigger jail. 

Locking up more criminals ensures those offenders won't be committing more crimes while they are incarcerated. But jailing more of those who don't need to be behind bars hardly contributes to a healthy and safe community.

“The way I look at it,” said Kang-Brown, “jail causes a lot of problems, too. It disrupts jobs, family life, housing.” A stay in jail may make it less likely that offenders can avoid falling back into crime after their release.

Officials and planners here should be asking what they can learn from larger cities that have made their jail problems smaller.

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