Big-Picture Lessons Learned from City Jail Reduction

When we discuss crime, public safety and the reforms needed within our systems, addressing mass incarceration and its inequities are typically considered a high priority. However, what is not always considered as critical in these discussions, is the need for strategic policy changes to address jail reduction in our local systems.

Today, NLC released the brief Reducing the Use of Jails, and the lessons learned from a year-long period of technical assistance surrounding jail reduction strategies serve as a starting point in determining how cities can work to address this necessary aspect of criminal justice reform. This work builds upon broad experience in the importance of jail reduction across our network.

NLC’s five-city technical assistance cohort—including Savannah, Georgia; Birmingham, Alabama; Gainesville, Florida; Madison, Wisconsin and St. Louis, Missouri—piloted diversion programs with hopes to lessen the reliance on local jails through collaborative city efforts.

Three primary lessons were posed to be most prominent in this work; the public leadership roles that mayors and other city leaders can play on the issues surrounding reducing the use of jails; the need for comprehensive planning and stakeholder engagement when formulating approaches; and the opportunities for braiding together a range of pre-arrest diversion strategies with the greatest chance of reducing the overuse of jails.

A key component of this work was the intensive collection of relevant data and strategic system mapping by cohort cities in order to evaluate demographic data, involve the appropriate stakeholders, locate current opportunities for diversion and engage resources within the community.

Another necessary component was that the mayor of each of the five sites played a key role in the development and implementation of these diversion strategies by making them part of the public safety platforms in their respective cities. As a part of this work, they attended a Mayors’ Institute that allowed for the sharing of ideas and plans, feedback from national experts and collaboration with their peers. Despite varying levels of municipal control of the local criminal justice system, from this strategic learning session, each mayor was able to return to their city with plans for policy reform that would allow for steps to address their local jail populations.

Reducing the Use of Jails takes a deeper dive into each of the lessons learned and how each city utilized their local landscape to adapt, adjust and promote change within their systems.

The work done during this initiative showed just how local leadership can impact the movement toward jail-use reduction and reducing the racial disparities within their systems. While each plan was unique, they all demonstrated just how the collaboration between city leadership and the jail administrations (which are typically county-based) can be effective and even make an impact on state-level justice policies.

[Learn how city leaders can claim public leadership on reducing the use of local jails as part of their core responsibility for public safety.]

While this project brought these cities to the point of implementation, we now look forward to gauging the results that they achieve via these new diversion strategies while also engaging other cities in this work.

Savannah Mayor Pro Tem Carol Bell made clear that utilizing the momentum of recent wins, cities can drive forward in implementing new and innovative strategies in jail reduction. She notes that the cities participating in the technical assistance cohort came on the heels of an effort to reduce youth in the local court system

“Led by the Juvenile Court Judges, we were successful in establishing a multi-agency resource center that provides wrap-around services to juveniles and their families.  Consequently, we were able to build on the momentum from those recent wins focused on youth diversion to develop an approach focused on young adults,” Bell said.  “Building on the momentum from other, related initiatives can mean a smoother path for identifying partners and building community buy-in.  Data showing an overrepresentation of young adults in the system drove the City to focus on young adults, but the City created a universal model.”

NLC is a strategic ally within the John D. and Catherine MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, allowing for this concerted effort to organize cities toward reducing the population of local jails while also addressing the racial disparities that exist within those population.


About the Author: Kirby Gaherty is the program manager for Justice Reform and Youth Engagement in the National League of Cities’ Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.