When Jail Populations Decline, Crime Rates Remain Stable

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CUNY Institute for State & Local Governance on 07/11/2021 by Stephanie Rosoff

Encouraging Findings about Decarceration and Public Safety from the Safety and Justice Challenge

The primary purpose of a jail is to detain those who are waiting for court proceedings and are considered a flight risk or public safety threat. However, many people admitted to jail are there because they cannot afford to post bail. As a result, they may remain behind bars for weeks, awaiting trial or a case resolution. This overreliance on jails has negative consequences not only for those who are incarcerated, but also for their families and their communities, particularly communities of color. Black Americans, for example, are jailed at five times the rate of white Americans; their numbers in the nation’s jail population are three times their representation in the general population.

Reducing Jail Populations Safely

In 2015, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation launched the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC), a multi-year initiative to reduce populations and racial disparities in American jails. Collectively, the 51 SJC sites account for about 16 percent of the total confined jail population in the United States. The MacArthur Foundation asked ISLG to track the progress of reforms across the SJC jurisdictions.

The goal of the SJC is not only to reduce jail populations, but to do so safely—and this has been a pillar of the initiative since its inception. Previous briefs have highlighted how SJC sites have substantially reduced their jail populations. Our latest report examines the impact of these decarceration strategies on  public safety in 23 SJC sites. The report explores how both crime rates and returns to jail custody among people released from jail changed after decarceration strategies were implemented across SJC sites through 2019.

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