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. Maybe, at long last, common-sense federal and state prison reforms will replace current policies of punishment for punishment’s sake.
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 — including, perhaps, the one in your town — draw millions of nonviolent persons 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 … While jails do hold people accused of serious, violent crimes, nearly 75 percent of both sentenced offenders and pretrial detainees [51 percent of whom are blacks and Latinos] are in jail for nonviolent traffic, property, drug or public order offenses.”
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.
America’s drug war filled both prisons and jails with nonviolent inmates. While only 9 percent of the jail population was charged with a drug-related offense in 1983, by 2002 drug-related violations shot up to 25 percent and the average jail time between 1983 and 2013 went from 14 to 23 days.
Many of those stuck in the system will serve repeated stints behind bars.
Importantly, people landing in jail are likely to have a history of substance abuse, poverty, homelessness and mental illness — not violent, criminal intent. In fact, many jails are now serving 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.”
And, like prisons, jails don’t prepare released inmates to successfully re-enter society. In fact, the jail experience often makes it even harder for ex-inmates to find employment and housing, allowing the jailhouse revolving door to spin faster and faster.
Backing off from harsh federal and state mandatory minimum prison sentences is a relatively tame task. While serious reforms are just beginning and much remains to be done, the passage of new laws is a clear pathway to needed reforms.
Reforming the operation of 3,000 independent jails, however, is a wicked task and one that will call for thousands of local community leaders from coast to coast to follow the lead of those municipalities already attempting to stop using local jails to mask unsolved social and economic challenges in their communities.
Until the political will and resources are available to effectively address the root causes landing non-violent, 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.
Editor’s note: Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization.