Each year, about nine million people are incarcerated in local jails. Most are held for relatively low-level offenses -- such as drug misdemeanors, traffic offenses or nonviolent property crimes -- because they cannot afford bail, a new report shows.
The Vera Institute of Justice reports that there are more than 3,000 jails in America, holding 730,000 on any given day. Most of those in jail have not yet gone to trial. "They are legally innocent," according to one of the Institute directors. They remain in jail not because they have been adjudicated guilty of a crime, but because they cannot afford bail.
“If you have money to pay bail, you can get out no matter how dangerous you are,” according to the Institute director, “Whereas, if you are poor and all you've committed is a traffic violation, which is one of biggest ... jail admissions in most places, you are going to sit in jail because $500 is a lot of money to you.”
Their plight is compounded by jails that charge incarceration fees, basically room-and-board, for the duration of their stay in the jail. In the last 45 years, jail populations have increased fourfold, yet municipalities cannot afford to keep up the funding. Instead, the expenses are transferred to the inmates in the form of fees.
“People get assessed fines and fees, ... they can't pay them, and that can end up driving them back into jail, which only increases the pressure on the jail system and the justice system overall and makes it more costly. So it's ultimately kind of a vicious circle,” according to the Vera Institute.
In 2014 and 2015, 46 states enacted at least 201 bills, executive orders, and ballot initiatives to reform at least one aspect of their sentencing and corrections systems. These included laws to:
- Create or expand opportunities to divert people away from the criminal justice system.
- Reduce prison populations.
- Support successful reentry into the community.
Communities in some states, including Washington and Oregon, are creating new programs to ease jail populations.
The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) Program in King County, Wash., identifies people arrested for lower-level drug and prostitution offenses and diverts them from the criminal justice system and into community-based services, thus reserving expensive criminal justice system resources for more serious cases.
In Portland, Ore., every police officer receives training in how to respond to a suspect who appears to suffer from mental illness or is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The police department also has a special corps of officers who volunteer and receive more intensive training to focus on calls for service involving unstable people. Between 2008 and 2010, the team saved the county nearly $16 million in jail costs.
Spokane County, Wash., this year, was awarded $1.75 million from the Safety and Justice Challenge sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation to create a long-term justice system reform plan to reduce the average daily jail population over the next three years.
Any criminal conviction can result in a jail sentence and as research shows, even those who are innocent, can be jailed while awaiting a favorable outcome. Every defendant has the right to the best representation in court. If you have been arrested, call the Seattle law office of Steve Karimi at (206) 621-8777 or contact him online.