Jail Reform

If Crime is Down, Why Do We Keep Building Larger Jails?

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

The growth of mass incarceration in communities across America during the 1980’s and 1990’s was, logically enough, accompanied by a boom in jail and prison construction.

More recently, however, with crime generally remaining at half of what it was in the 1980s, the movement toward reforming the nation’s lock’m-up trend has led to less in the way of energetic prison building.

In the last decade, prison populations have declined by about 10 percent. Racial disparities in the prison population, while far from solved, have also fallen due to various reforms.

Furthermore, the conclusion that mass incarceration is a mistake has come from both sides of the political aisle.  Conservative and progressive lawmakers have gradually noticed that locking-up large numbers of people is very expensive, and not really the most effective way to fight crime, notes James Cullen, writing for the Brennen Insitute of Justice.

Yet, while these changes in attitude may have slowed the prison-building boom, according to a new report by the Vera Institute of Justice, county jails are a different matter.  The report, called Broken Ground, notes that, despite news reports about the decline of jail populations throughout the country, hundreds of America’s small cities and towns, and some large cities have, nevertheless, broken ground on new and larger jails.

There have also been some notable gestures toward reform in many of the nation’s biggest cities, including the much-written-about movements to close Rikers Island in New York City, to tear down Men’s Central jail in Los Angeles, to close the infamous “Workhouse” in St. Louis, and to repurpose Atlanta’s City Detention Center, each of which have challenged elected officials to eliminate jail beds and invest instead in communities. Yet, as we’ve seen in Los Angeles and New York, such commitments to change are…complicated.

The result is, reforms notwithstanding, across the nation, new jail beds somehow have continued to be added every year, each of them a hugely expensive investment for local governments—especially in an era of falling crime rates.

As jails grew more overcrowded, concerns about safety and conditions, especially in old or out-of-date facilities, have driven many counties to build larger jails.

Another factor, according to the report, is the fact that, behind the scenes the organizations and individuals that stand to benefit monetarily from jail expansion often successfully build support for these projects using the justifications that most resonate with the community—-whether those justifications are economic development, safety, better jail conditions, or better treatment for substance use and mental health. In many counties, decision-makers and the consultants they hire simply take for granted that a larger jail is needed, with few informed questions asked.

To find out more specifically why this was happening, Vera decided to do some research, looking at scores of counties that “considered or pursued jail expansion between 2000 and 2019.”

Of those municipalities, they chose a sample of 77 counties in 31 states and conducted secondary research by delving into media reports, jail litigation cases, academic papers, and government documents such as commissioned studies examining the need for a jurisdiction’s local jail, to find out why each county was building, and to then look at what trends this jail building boom suggested.

Of the counties in the sample, the majority ultimately built a jail or were in the process of construction as of September 2019.

Numbers, mental health, and money

In studying their sample counties, Vera identified three major, often coexisting, arguments that county officials most frequently made in order to gather public support of jail expansion.

1. First, when crime is down, but jail populations are up, in a lot of areas of the country, one of the main reasons for the rise in jailhouse guests is an over-reliance on money bail, leading to a rise in pretrial populations, which has translated into overcrowded jails.

Thus, according to Vera’s examinations, as jail populations have exceeded capacity, county policymakers too often have turned to jail expansion, rather than trying to find out whether or not all those people really need to be in the county’s jail for reasons of public safety.

Certainly, in a percentage of cases, people are being held in jail, pre-trial, for reasons of public safety. But in the majority, they are held because they can’t afford the bail, or the irrecoverable fee one has to pay the bondsman. Logically, those who can afford the fee aren’t any less of a safety threat. They just have more money.

Yet, for many officials, it is far easier to continue to please the rich, powerful, and politically active private bail industry, than it is to critically examine the money bail system in their county.

As a consequence, more often than not, Vera found these counties instead began hiring architects and consultants to provide population projections, each of which inevitably validated the decision to build.

In some cases, decision-makers also argued, correctly, that replacing older facilities would provide safer living and working conditions for the increasing numbers of people residing or working in their jail. Sometimes this was done “under pressure from courts or state oversight agencies,” the report noted. Yet, replacing older facilities, almost always meant larger jails.

2. The high need for mental health care, behavioral health treatment, and primary care among people in jail was another one of the most common reasons to justify new jail construction.

Even if crime is down, the lack of community treatment for people who have histories of substance abuse, various mental problems, and other vulnerabilities, has meant that jails have become de facto treatment centers when these vulnerable populations run afoul of the law.

Vera points to Los Angeles as an example of this principle writ large, where those in jail who need mental health services are staying for longer periods of time than those who do not require such services. These same populations also end up landing in jail for a series of short stays, according to Vera. They are likely to return since, in jail, the conditions that underlie their lawbreaking are rarely solved.

Perversely, this allows county policymakers to make the reformist-sounding argument that a new, larger jail is urgently needed in order to create or expand services for these populations.

Yet, however well-intentioned jail expansion may be, writes Vera, the isolating experience of confinement in a detention facility, the primary aim of which remains control, surveillance, and punishment, will still be traumatic for people, intrinsically limiting the rehabilitative potential of a jail’s new treatment capacity.

3. The third big reason for jail building in some counties turned out to be, not surprisingly,  a financial incentive, according to the Vera report.

When they are struggling with overcrowded jails, some counties wind up paying jails in neighboring jurisdictions to house some of their overflow population. So to stop this onerous rent-paying, rather than first trying to see if there are appropriate ways to solve the rent problem by dropping their jail populations, many counties decide to build, with the idea that, in addition to doing away with paying rent, the counties could themselves create a source of income by renting out their new jail beds for a fee to neighboring counties, the state prison system, or the feds, for immigration detainees.

So what are the alternatives?

All of the above notwithstanding, Vera found that not everyone bought into the jail building habit.

In Pima County, Arizona, for example, county policymakers instead put money into supporting people with mental illnesses, providing early screenings and treatment instead of housing them in the local jail. Their coordinated policy changes resulted in a 15 percent drop in the jail population within one year, which also is anticipated to produce savings to the county by closing a number of housing units in the jail.

In a similar vein, recognizing that too many people with mental illnesses were
cycling through its county jail, Miami-Dade County, Florida, which has generally been ahead of the curve when it comes to diversion, founded the Criminal Mental Health Project, to reroute this population away from incarceration and toward community-based treatment.

New Mexico took another path. In 2016, New Mexico voters approved a constitutional amendment, which states that people who are neither a danger to the community nor a flight risk cannot be detained pretrial solely because they are too poor to post bail. After its implementation, according to Vera, the number of people who were granted bail, but held in custody because they couldn’t pay it, fell from 402 in January 2017 to 66 in May 2018, at Bernalillo Metropolitan Detention Center, the state’s largest jail.

Vera also has a list of other forward-looking examples.

In short, according to the Vera report, while many municipalities are slow to let go of the jail building boom, a growing number of counties “view the assumption of perpetual growth with suspicion.”

So, instead of building larger jails, they are renovating older facilities, while maintaining smaller jail populations, “and voting down proposals to build bigger.”

They are also, like Los Angeles, looking for ways to invest in community-based treatment services, rather than locating such services within a jail expansion project.

In Los Angeles, writes Vera, “community activists and leaders alike have expressed hopes” that after implementing certain new policy options, “the ‘dungeon-like’ 1963 Men’s Central facility can be closed entirely, rather than replaced.”

By pushing back against the cycle of construction, according to the Vera report, counties can “save money, hold fewer of their community members behind bars, and dedicate more resources to evidence-based practices that more effectively ensure community safety.”

So, yes, there are municipalities that are breaking new ground, according to Vera.

“It’s a model all of America’s counties should consider.”

The graphic above is via the Vera Institute of Justice.

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  • Writer, I’m guessing you have never lived in the inner city nor have you lived near violent street gangs! The inner city streets are still very dangerous. Stop quoting misleading crime statistics. The statistics are down due to Governor Brown and the Liberal California legislatures efforts to downgrade felonies. There is no jail building “boom”. Old and outdated jails need to be updated to newer and much safer ones.

  • Crime is not “down.”
    Non-reporting, under-reporting, and minimizing crimes is the false statistic pushed as evidence.
    Population is up. Even given a downward trend in crime, the total numbers still go up.
    The jails are maxed out with criminals who should be in state prison.
    Criminals know the system in CA has become neutered. They are now emboldened to commit crimes as they learn they won’t be prosecuted. Even if they are, there is little chance they will serve any significant time incarcerated compared to what the punishment should be to dissuade them from reoffending. We don’t have a justice system in CA. We have a legal system. For the victims of the daily street robberies, assaults, rapes, burglaries, shootings, hit-and-runs, DUI collisions, and the merchant shoplifting victim of what would be their profit margin for the day, there is no justice.

  • Celeste, I don’t know if you’re aware, but Riker’s Island will be REPLACED with de-centralized jails in each of the boroughs at a cost of about 10 billion dollars.

    I also don’t know if you’re aware inmates in Los Angeles County currently do about 10% (or less) of their sentence, unless the crime is particularly serious (violent felonies, sex crimes, etc.). We also have AB109 inmates from the state prisons courtesy of the state’s “realignment” law (love the euphemisms).

    This means only the worst of the worst are in our jails and that INCLUDES the women’s jail (CRDF), which is at capacity.

    Now, because progressives have succeeded in convincing the public that inmates awaiting trial for “minor” crimes should be in the community (wonder why there are so many homeless in recent years?), they think the next logical step is to ease violent felons and sexual predators back into neighborhoods.

    In LA County, I fully supported CCTF which was a replacement for Central Jail that was a jail ONLY because you couldn’t leave and was focused on treatment and rehabilitation. With the ever increasing number of mentally-ill criminals, it was our only hope. Unfortunately, our bumbling, stumbling, gibberish speaking Sheriff killed his own project when he went before the Board.

    In the same way we did away with asylums in the 60’s and 70’s, forcing law enforcement (and the public) to bear the burden, we are now trying to do away with THAT last resort because jails are….distasteful and go against everything the left believes in. I truly hope I’m wrong, but communities will now take the hit as the mentally ill, the criminally mentally ill and the just plain criminals are “diverted” into our neighborhoods.

  • Unfortunately for you, the BOS killed that project long before our sheriff spoke. You should have paid attention to the theater orchestrated by Kuehl and Solis, packing the audience with anarchists taking selfies, patting themselves for killing the MHTC project. It had absolutely nothing to do with the sheriff, who tried to do the impossible. This is the same BOS who voted a year before to authorize the CCTF project, but decided to play politics with public safety.

    By the way, I saw the sheriff on national TV all week long, he spoke quite eloquently and effectively on the tragedy in Saugus. Haters will hate, for sure.

  • Keep Dreaming, we must have watched two different Sheriffs. He was horrible at the BOS meeting and was outdone by Judge Peter Espinosa (Director of ODR). AV had the TRUTH on his side and rambled on about a failed case of diversion until Hahn clowned him and made him look like a fool.

    Espinoza had nothing on his side but was succinct, convincing and articulate. True, the BOS had already made up their mind, but lets not forget it was the SHERIFF who, during the election, spoke out against the new Mira Loma project and said the replacement for MCJ should be stopped saying it was like, “putting lipstick on a pig.”

    His stammering, blithering performance before the board was only AFTER his aids convinced him that the Department would, in fact, desperately need new facilities in the future…but by then it was too late as the public had bought off on his rhetoric and ODR’s fairy tale of diversion.

    But, I suppose he CAN be eloquent at times….in a Cheech Marin kinda way….

  • Would that be the same Espinoza who described the son stabbing his mother eleven times as a “negative outcome?” That one? If that is convincing in your book, well, perhaps you should rethink reality. I do remember the campaign argument, and the decision to stop the Mira Loma project was a solid one, but of course you can’t acknowledge that, can you? I also remember Villanueva stating that merely replacing MCJ with another jail is a waste of time, that the county needed to seriously rethink their strategy. The BOS’ ultimate decision, which cost the taxpayers at least $80 million in penalties, was the wrong way to go.

    Hate all you want, the more you do the more it confirms voters got it right.

  • I think the word is “criticize,” not “hate.” What is this….9th grade?

    You made my point, Keep Dreaming, Espinoza, as I said, had nothing…a bunch of BS, but he was able to deliver his shit sandwich in a convincing and appetizing way. AV had FACTS, a prepared speech and STILL couldn’t speak clearly and convincingly.

    As to whether Mira Loma and MHTC were a good idea….only time will tell.

  • Keep dreaming, AKA “Fed up”, AKA AV’s spouse. Always the same talking points. You need some fresh material. You saw the sheriff on national TV after the school shooting?? Laughing. Maybe next time you can drive him to the press conference. Take the carpool lane so everyone isn’t waiting around for hours to hear him mumble. The awful Ex sheriff McDonnell took advantage of AV’s stalling and went live on TV hours before AV even considered doing the press conference. Bad optics.

  • Seems like the more you change your avatar, the drivel doesn’t change. The awful McNumbnuts was PAID to be a law enforcement “expert” by KABC, well in advance of the Saugus tragedy. Not exactly taking advantage of anything but your naivete. The sheriff did manage to do live interviews prior to arriving on scene and I heard him loud and clear. The fact he’s living rent free in your mind warms my heart!

  • The shell game put upon the voters by the politicians and supported by the ACLU and appeals court has led to turnstyle justice. Crimes are committed by “justice involved individuals” and either they are taken to a mental facility where they are doped up and made stable to release back into society or they are issued a ticket to appear in court. There is no treatment or accountability and these “justice involved individuals” will repeat offend and the cycle will continue. The losers are the “real victims” of the “justice involved” and society as whole. Livability is clearly impacted.

    It’s a shame the voters were duped by politicians and the ACLU into thinking this was best. Now, no one knows what to do, wants to accept blame for their failed policies and instead continue to give lip service and spend money with no real purpose or idea of the final outcome.

    Social engineering at it’s worst.

  • Here we go again. The enablers and facilitators’ of Sheriff Limp Mumble have no plan but throw rocks at everyone. They blame the BOS, ACLU, white people, McDonnell, Teran, Local politicians, Blacks, Immigrants, and just about everyone who highlights the serious problem we are facing in our communities.

  • Celeste, the more I read your writing the more I realize you really don’t get it. Your selective myopia and hand wringing for the “justice involved” population and their vulnerabilities apparently is everything, while the real vulnerabilities of their victims means nothing to you. FYI, the MHTC was going to be a contraction of the LA county jail system, making it a thousand beds shorter than what’s standing today. There goes your entire “expansion” theory. Here’s another gem of yours:

    “Yet, however well-intentioned jail expansion may be, writes Vera, the isolating experience of confinement in a detention facility, the primary aim of which remains control, surveillance, and punishment, will still be traumatic for people, intrinsically limiting the rehabilitative potential of a jail’s new treatment capacity.” I dusted off my old AJ books to double check, and apparently the primary purpose for detention facilities is not what Celeste or Vera claim, but rather to seek retribution, provide rehabilitation, deterrence, and old fashion incapacitation. I guess when the really bad guys are locked up they can’t find more VULNERABLE victims to victimize again. Who knew?

    Celeste, in your SJW circles you are trying to create a consequence-free world for the “justice involved,” but the rest of society is not buying your garbage. Everyone wants to provide opportunities to rehabilitate those who are incarcerated, but let’s start with YOUR neighborhood for releasing some old fashioned predators who Judge Espinoza claims can be safely diverted. Worse that can happen is a “negative outcome,” right?

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