Cities Explore Ways to Reduce Overuse of Jails for Young Adults

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“There is enough data that exist that shows that recidivism is also an indicator that our current justice system is not functioning properly. We must begin with the lightest touch in our system especially with youth that focuses on treatment and education if we are going to change course in America.”

Yvette Gentry, Chief of Community Building, Office of Mayor Greg Fischer, Louisville, Kentucky


Cities increasingly show greater commitment to diversion at the point of arrest as an alternative to jail in order to reduce the inflow of young adults into local facilities — thus reducing long-term effects of incarceration while young. Employing the strategy often involves providing specialized training to frontline police officers and tightening links to mental and behavioral health providers.

Eight cities with a strong interest in early diversion and other jail-use reduction strategies – including Birmingham, Alabama; Enfield, Connecticut; Las Vegas; Long Beach, California; Louisville, Kentucky; Norristown, Pennsylvania; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle – recently gathered at the National League of Cities’ first City Leadership to Reduce Overuse of Jails for Young Adults Leadership Academy, in Denver. With help from expert faculty from the Vera Institute of Justice, the W. Haywood Burns Institute, and the Justice Management Institute, among others, cities developed or enhanced plans to explore policies for diverting young adults to mental health and substance abuse treatment services as an alternative to jail. The Leadership Academy also provided information on cross-system collaboration and data sharing, as well as proactive methods to reduce racial and ethnic disparities at the time of arrest.

Up to ten additional cities will participate in a second Leadership Academy that will take place October 19 – 21 in Chicago.

Leadership Academy attendees’ interest in diversion builds on successful and promising programs, as detailed by NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families (YEF Institute), from around the country that focus on police collaborations with behavioral health providers, programs targeted to the young adult population, and adult citation-in-lieu-of-arrest programs.

A few existing programs receive funding and technical assistance from the GAINS Center for Behavioral Health and Justice Transformation, a division of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration with the US Department of Health and Human Services. The GAINS Center website also serves as a repository for resources, training opportunities and funding prospects.

Many city leaders have begun to explore the Seattle LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) program model. This program, piloted in two Seattle area neighborhoods, allows police officers to divert low-level offenders directly to community services. The LEAD National Support Bureau provides strategic guidance and technical support to other local jurisdictions.

The YEF Institute is developing a Peer Learning Network on jail reduction that will provide additional resources and connections to experts on topics such as diversion, jail reentry, reducing racial and ethnic disparities and other emerging strategies. For more information, email Heidi Cooper at with the subject line “Jail Reduction Peer Learning Network.”

Heidi CooperAbout the Authors: Heidi Cooper is the Associate of Justice reform within NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.




RDHeadshotRashawn Davis is an Amelior Graduate Fellow at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service.