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Another Voice: America’s community jails need to be fixed, too

By Ronald Fraser

After decades of America’s incarceration mania, U.S. Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer recently told a congressional committee in Washington that America’s criminal justice system is broken and that long, mandatory minimum sentences in correctional institutions that don’t correct is a terrible idea.

But hold the applause. “Incarceration’s Front Door: The Misuse of Jails in America,” a timely report from the Vera Institute of Justice, tells us incarceration mania has spread well beyond federal and state prison systems. Each year more than 3,000 local jails draw millions of nonviolent people into a judicial merry-go-round from which many never escape.

Jails, according to the Vera Institute, have lost sight of their original reasons for being: “Intended to house only those deemed to be a danger to society or a flight risk before trial, jails have become massive warehouses primarily for those too poor to post even low bail or too sick for existing community resources to handle.”

In addition, jails are being used to punish people who don’t show up on time for hearings, don’t have the money to pay mounting fines and then end up with a debt they can never repay.

Importantly, people landing in jail are likely to have a history of substance abuse, poverty, homelessness and mental illness – not violent, criminal intent. Many jails now serve as the community’s “de facto mental hospitals.”

Why? Because, this report tells us, jails “fill the vacuum created by shuttering of state psychiatric hospitals and other efforts to deinstitutionalize people with serious mental illness during the 1970s, which occurred without creating adequate resources to care for those displaced in the community.”

Serious mental illness, we learn, which includes bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and major depression, affects an estimated 14.5 percent of men and 31 percent of women in jail – rates four to six times higher than the general population.

On any given day, America’s jails hold about 731,000 inmates – less than one-half the number of federal and state prison inmates. But what sets jails apart from prisons is the volume and transient nature of their inmates.

Each year, local jails admit nearly 12 million inmates – 19 times greater than the annual admissions to state and federal prisons. In this way, jails provide 3,000 local gateways for nonviolent, small-time offenders to acquire their first “rap sheet.”

Until the political will and resources are available to address the root causes landing nonviolent, homeless and mentally ill offenders behind bars, the nation’s jails will continue in their shameful role as publicly financed and operated warehouses for the poor and the sick.

Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project.