Grants Totaling $25M Target Reducing U.S. Jail Population

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By  Jessica DaSilva 

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation April 13 announced the recipients of $25 million in funding for public services to reduce jail populations and close racial and ethnic gaps in jails, according to a press release from the foundation.

Eleven jurisdictions received grants between $1.7 million and $3.5 million for two-year initiatives designed to reduce jail populations by at least 15 percent, a researcher for one of the recipients told Bloomberg BNA. The foundation awarded $150,000 grants to nine other jurisdictions to support continued reform efforts on the local level. 

Jurisdictions may reapply for funding at the end of the two-year time frame, the release said.

The grants are part of a national initiative called the Safety and Justice Challenge, which is designed to start a national dialogue about jails and create a network of jurisdictions to spearhead criminal justice reform at the local and state level, according to the press release.

‘Strong Business Case.'

Recipient jurisdictions will collect and use data from a variety of local organizations—including police, jails, and courts—to determine the best methods for reducing jail populations and keeping people out of the system for minor infractions, said foundation Director Laurie R. Garduque.

That way, if certain approaches aren't working, the jurisdictions can implement changes that would have a broader impact, Garduque told Bloomberg BNA April 11.

The foundation turned its attention to jails because they suffer from the same overcrowding as prisons, but don't get the same attention, Garduque explained. When the foundation started accepting applications, she said it received proposals from 191 jurisdictions.

“It's not just a problem of large jails that we read about in New York City or Los Angeles or Houston,” Garduque said. “It's also a problem in Lucas County, Ohio.”

The jurisdictions were selected based on a rigorous analysis by an expert panel, she explained. The preliminary data submitted to the committee included details, such as what people typically go to jail, why they wind up in jail, and how long they stay, she said. Jurisdictions then used that data to create logic models with the help of the foundation on how they could intervene and make the biggest impact in reducing the jail population, Garduque added.

This data-driven exercise, performed in order to receive the funding, will now allow jurisdictions to target their resources effectively and efficiently so legislators considering budgets for criminal justice reform can see the progress made, she said.

“I think we're modeling behavior that will enable them to make a strong business case—and on moral grounds—that this is the right thing to do,” Garduque said. 

Pilot Program Success

Professor Beth M. Huebner, from the University of Missouri-St. Louis's Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, leads the research for St. Louis County, one of the 11 jurisdictions receiving a larger grant.

Huebner told Bloomberg BNA April 12 that St. Louis County will use its grant to reduce the jail population in three ways:

• extend a pilot program allowing for pretrial release under supervision;

• let probation violators wait for their hearings while under supervision in the community; and

• update the website information for all of county's municipal courts to reduce those in jail for failures to appear or pay fines.

These three programs should reduce the jail population by 15 to 19 percent over two years, Huebner predicted. Part of that estimation is based on the success rate of the pretrial release pilot program, she explained.

The pretrial release pilot program was developed from data collected from different city and county agencies, Huebner said. Once her team started analyzing the data, she said they were able to hone in on trends and what services could help people better than sitting in jail.

For example, Huebner explained that the data revealed that women had a particular need for substance abuse treatment for opioid addictions.

A team of service providers will be able to evaluate defendants awaiting trial or violation of probation hearings to examine what services they need most with the grant money, she said. 

Low-risk, low-need defendants are typically out of jail within 24 hours and go directly into the pretrial process, she said. 

Those with bigger needs, like lack of housing, substance abuse or mental health treatment, are released within a week after a treatment team evaluates their cases, Huebner said.

Defendants who pose a risk to the community, such as those who commit violent crimes or weapons-based offenses, are ineligible for pretrial release, she said.

More than 80 percent of those screened in the pilot program complied with their treatment plans and showed up for their court dates, she added.

What to Wear

The projected success for preventing failures to appear or pay fines is just as high as pretrial release, Huebner said. She estimated 100 to 150 individuals in St. Louis County's jail population could be attributed to these failures.

Additionally, she said local law enforcement has about 10,000 warrants for similar offenses.

Updating the website information for the more than 60 municipalities—including Ferguson—that make up St. Louis County will ensure that defendants know exactly where to go for court dates or would allow them to pay fines online, Huebner said.

“Defendants weren't aware of their rights or roles in courts,” she explained. “Community partners said [defendants] had a great desire to learn more about where to pay fines, where to go, and how to dress for court.”

Website updates would also send reminders for court appearances to defendants, Huebner added.

One sub-group of these offenders include parents who owe arrears in child support, she explained. Thanks to a partnership with community service providers, individuals at risk of landing in jail for failure to pay child support can also receive a treatment plan that provides job training or employment, she said.

So far, 200 people enrolled to the success rate of about 87 percent, Huebner said. The individuals in that program paid $170,000 in past-due child support, she said.

St. Louis County did not have the time or money to evaluate how defendants were processed in the county system before the grant, she said.

“Before and until you have the data from each aspect of the system, you can't see the full picture,” Huebner said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jessica DaSilva at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at

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