News and analysis
February 11, 2015

MacArthur Fund Pledges $75-Million to Reduce Local Jail Populations

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation will announce today that it will dedicate $75-million over five years to help reduce the pressure on the nation’s overstuffed jails.

Some of the money will go to a set of competitive grants for local jurisdictions to come up with promising ways to keep jail populations down. Applications for the grants are due on March 31. In May, 20 jurisdictions will be awarded $150,000 each to develop their ideas. Next year, 10 of those grantees will be awarded up to $2-million each to put their plans into action.

While the federal prison population has been declining recently, evidence suggests that local jails—where trends are harder to measure because of high inmate turnover—are more crowded than ever.

From 1982 to 2011, the cumulative expenditures for building and running jails increased 235 percent, the foundation said, citing Department of Justice figures. The annual tab for the cities and counties to run the facilities is $22.2-billion.

Laurie Garduque, MacArthur’s director for justice reform, says that during the past 20 years the average stay for a jail inmate has grown from 14 days to more than three weeks. The longer stays jeopardize detainees’ employment and interrupt their education.

"Jails have toxic effects on people’s lives," she says.

Ms. Garduque says the foundation will look for ways to encourage local law enforcement to issue summons more often than making arrests, expedite pretrial reviews, and develop standardized assessments of an inmate’s risk of flight or further crime if he or she is released.

About 75 percent of inmates in community jails are nonviolent offenders or pretrial detainees accused of nonviolent crimes, according to the foundation.

Even a short time in jail can cause drastic harm, said Nick Turner, president of the Vera Institute of Justice, a research and advocacy group. When an inmate is in the lock-up, it is difficult to meet with lawyers to muster a trial defense. And showing up in court in an orange jail jumpsuit can prejudice a jury, he says.

"Over-incarceration is not providing more public safety," he said. "When you put people who don’t belong in jail in conditions that are often filthy and dangerous, it accelerates an unwinding of their lives that can decrease public safety."

Shifting Priorities

Today’s announcement marks a shift in priorities in the foundation’s criminal-justice programs. During the past two decades, MacArthur has spent or pledged about $165-million to improve the treatment of juveniles in the nation’s court and prison system. Much of the juvenile-justice work involved getting localities to make changes in how they process juveniles, particularly minorities and low-income offenders, and promote successes so they can be used nationally.

"We’re ramping down that work as we’re ramping up our work in jails," Ms. Garduque says.

In addition to the competitive grants, the foundation will support research into alternatives to jail and enlist four organizations—the Center for Court Innovation, the Justice Management Institute, Justice System Partners, and the Vera Institute of Justice—to provide guidance to the grant winners.

The data local jurisdictions collect about crime suspects from the time of an arrest and through the court process varies by locality and is hard to use to shape policy. Ms. Garduque hopes the involvement of the broader group of criminal-justice experts will help make sense of the numbers.

"It will be a challenge," she says, "but we’re putting in place an infrastructure to support that effort."

Send an e-mail to Alex Daniels.