Mass Incarceration Begins in Local Jails. Here’s How Cities Can Prevent Their Overuse.

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Local jails detain 19 times the number of individuals of state and federal prisons combined – but cities have the power to reduce those numbers.

"The time is right for Philadelphia to take major action to keep people out of jail who do not belong there." Mayor Jim Kenny, Philadelphia, Penn.
“The time is right for Philadelphia to take major action to keep people out of jail who do not belong there.” – Philadephia Mayor Jim Kenny (Getty Images)

In its most recent step supporting city leaders to reform the justice system, the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education, and Families will launch a new initiative to reduce the number of young adults in jail through two Leadership Academies taking place in Fall 2016. Interested cities can apply to participate in a Leadership Academy, the information for which appears below.

Why Jail Reform Matters for Cities

Local jails detain 19 times the number of individuals of state and federal prisons combined. Young people, people of color, those with behavioral health needs, and people with low incomes are over-represented in this crushing number of detained people – many of whom pose no threat to public safety.

The research confirms the common sense notion that adolescents are especially prone to risky behaviors including breaking local laws, even though adults commit more crimes overall. Further, most youthful offenders do not commit crimes as adults.

Evaluations of efforts to reduce youth crime indicate that 1) the certainty of being held accountable, rather than severity of punishment, most effectively prevents youth misbehavior, and 2) well-targeted interventions most effectively reduce re-offending.

Each arrest decision by a local law enforcement officer potentially leads to another person in jail. In addition, racial and ethnic disparities remain high in arrests across the country. Arrests of people with mental health issues is also putting large numbers of mentally ill people in jails that are not designed to provide them with treatment.

For low-income residents, jail is a particularly frequent and severe peril. Significant portions of low-risk pretrial jail detainees are there solely because they cannot afford even small financial bails. Also, city ordinances that allow jail time for failing to pay fines and fees may contribute to unnecessary jail stays.

How Cities Can Take Action

NLC’s City Leadership to Reduce the Overuse of Jails for Young Adults initiative will:

  • aid cities in reducing the number of young adults (aged 18-24) in local jails;
  • provide ways to decrease racial and ethnic disparities in the arrest and jailing of young adults; and
  • support improved outcomes for individuals through strong community-based services.

The academies will feature sessions led by national experts as well as peer learning opportunities. The YEF Institute will also provide assistance with collecting, analyzing, and acting on local data trends.

The initiative will highlight several reforms cities may take to improve long-term public safety and outcomes, including opportunities such as those described below.

  1. By providing services to people who do not pose a public safety risk instead of jailing them, cities can save money and reduce crime. Working in conjunction with county colleagues, city leaders can ensure their citizens access to the right help.
  1. Training and protocols to help officers arrest only those who pose a risk to public safety can drastically increase early diversion to needed services.
  1. Training and decision-making tools to make arrest decisions based on risk can help alleviate racial and ethnic disparities.

Leadership Academy Invitation

The YEF Institute invites three-member teams of city and community leaders to apply to attend one of two upcoming Leadership Academies in order to find better solutions for young people who come into contact with the law:

  • August 3-5, 2016 in Denver
  • October 19-21, 2016 in Chicago

Applications to participate are due May 26, 2016.

To learn more about the jail reform initiative and the Leadership Academies, join an introductory webinar on Thursday, April 28, 1-2 p.m. EST or Tuesday, May 3, 3-4 p.m. EST.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge provides support for the initiative.

Heidi CooperAbout the Author: Heidi Cooper is the Justice Reform Associate in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. Contact Heidi at