Editorial: $2M grant offers hope of reforming county’s overuse of jail


It takes $158 million to run Palm Beach County’s jail for a year. Housing each inmate costs $135 per day, almost $50,000 per year.

The jail consumes 14 percent of county tax dollars. It’s a big expense for taxpayers — and one reason that all of us ought to be glad that key players in the county’s criminal justice system are looking for ways to reduce the use of incarceration when it’s not really needed.

Here’s another. Two-thirds of the inmates haven’t been convicted of anything but are awaiting court appearances. Many got nabbed because they missed some previous court date or drove with a suspended license. And while they sit in jail, maybe their education is interrupted or they lose a job, default on a car loan, miss a rent payment and lose the apartment, fail the family.

When they get out, then what?

You know the answer: many are going to be tempted to commit a crime. Rather than put a lid on law-breaking, the unthinking use of jail can perpetuate it.

This punishing cycle doesn’t occur equally in our society. Half the county’s 2,250 inmates are African-Americans, though blacks make up just 19 percent of the county population. They’re kept in jail an average 44 days. Whites? Twenty-five days.

The original purpose of jail was to hold people who were believed to be dangerous or likely to flee before their court dates. But now “it appears that we’re warehousing people who have serious mental health issues or are just too poor to post bail,” says Laurie Garduque, director of justice reform at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

It’s a difficult system to fix, but to the county’s credit, key actors — from the chief judge to the top prosecutor to the public defender — have been talking about the issues for 30 years, convening as the Palm Beach County Criminal Justice Commission. (Sheriff Ric Bradshaw has been a no-show, regrettably, but that’s a story for another time.)

The MacArthur Foundation has recognized those efforts with a coveted $2 million grant. Awarded in October, it’s letting county officials launch a number of strategies aimed at cutting the jail population by 17 percent over the next two years.

For example, officials will use a risk-assessment tool at the beginning of an arrestee’s entry into the system, using an objective standard to try to make better and more consistent decisions about who poses a risk to the community and who can be safely released while awaiting trial. They’ll try to do a better job of getting help for people who are homeless and have mental health or substance abuse problems.

Everyone, from judges to jail guards, will be trained in spotting their own implicit biases so that people of color arrested by police are treated no differently than whites are. To cut down on “failures to appear,” defendants not jailed will get reminders of coming court dates by text message.

National experts will help officials examine data to identify racial and ethnic disparities in the jail population and help craft remedies. Other experts will review how cases move through the system and identify ways to improve the process.

Everything will be tracked by data collection — including how people released from jail do while their cases go through the system to make sure the community isn’t being harmed by letting more people go before their trials.

To get this grant, Palm Beach County had to compete with 190 other jurisdictions. There were only 20 winners, from the huge Los Angeles jail system (21,000 beds) to Toledo, Ohio (350 beds).

With past help from the MacArthur Foundation, the Criminal Justice Commission has already made some fruitful improvements, such as a Driving Under Suspension Diversion Court.

With this significant grant, and with the technical help MacArthur will also provide, the county is poised to make a deep dent in how the system decides who goes to jail and who gets to go home while their cases proceed.

Here’s hoping the work ahead produces a fairer, and more effective and just system all around.



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