Reducing Jail Use in Birmingham, Alabama

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I have advocated for many years that municipal courts are an untapped leader in developing reforms that can measurably reduce local jail populations. The jails are currently filled with citizens who quite simply would be better served without the use of confinement.

In November 2017, NLC selected the City of Birmingham, Alabama as one of five cities participating in an initiative to reduce unnecessarily high and racially disparate jail populations through city leadership. In addition to Birmingham, NLC chose Gainesville, Florida; Madison, Wisconsin; St. Louis, Missouri; and Savannah, Georgia to participate in this project, known as Cities Lead to Reduce the Use of Jails.

With the assistance of NLC, we were able to gather our community partners and peel back the layers of our system and really explore the factors driving our jail population. The experience has been so very illuminating for all concerned. We know that if we alter our approach to addressing aberrant behavior and create systems to respond to those behaviors, we can reduce our jail population in a measurable way.

[See other local efforts to implement policies and practices that reduce the presence of youth and young adults in jail, and that reduce or eliminate racial and ethnic disparities in the use of jail here.]

All of our partners were motivated to adopt a more citizen-focused strategy centered on “less jail” usage when possible. Our efforts have resulted in a revised approach toward initial notification of Court settings on traffic offenses; the establishment of a Pre-Trial Services Unit; and the establishment of a Pretrial Deflection program for minor offenses supported by the use of Peace Circles in our Public Housing Community.

These efforts have resulted in a significant reduction in the average monthly jail population, and we expect the trend to continue downward, despite more increased police presence in our communities.

We are excited about the progress. We know that in order to make a long-term difference, it will take consistently leadership at the highest level of our city government!

We believe in Putting People First!

This guest post by Justice Andra D. Sparks, the presiding judge in the Birmingham Municipal Court, highlights the City of Birmingham’s work in the National League of Cities technical assistance cohort to reduce the use of jails, as a part of the John D. and Catherine MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge. Birmingham is featured in the recently released NLC brief, Reducing the Use of Jails.

Headshot - Andra D Sparks President Birmingham Municipal Court JudgeAbout the Author: This guest post by Justice Andra D. Sparks, the presiding judge in the Birmingham Municipal Court, highlights the City of Birmingham’s work in the National League of Cities technical assistance cohort to reduce the use of jails, as a part of the John D. and Catherine MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge. Birmingham is featured in the recently released NLC brief, Reducing the Use of Jails.