Palm Beach County gets $2 million MacArthur grant to cut jail numbers

Palm Beach County leaders are hoping to reduce the county’s jail population by 17 percent and eliminate the racial disparities among the incarcerated over the next two years with the help of a $2 million national grant aimed at combating jail overpopulation.

The Palm Beach County Criminal Justice Commission announced Wednesday that the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded the group the $2 million as part of the Safety and Justice Challenge, described in a press release as “a more than $100 million national initiative to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails.”

The money will be spread over the county’s jail and the courts system and consist of five major strategies:

  • Increased focus on risk assessment and smart-release options for pretrial inmates.
  • More efficient case processing for defendants who have to remain in jail.
  • Diversion programs and warrant reduction for low-level defendants.
  • More data collection capacity and analysis of the local system overall.
  • Strategies to reduce racial and ethnic disparities, including implicit bias.

Part of all of these is more training for all criminal justice agencies.

As part of the grant award, the local court system is also expected to roll out a high-tech system that will notify defendants via text message of court dates to try to reduce the number of people jailed for failure to appear in court for their court dates.

County officials also plan to allocate part of the grant money to explore alternatives to incarceration for chronic arrestees who are homeless or in need of mental health treatment.

“The overarching goal of our work is to eliminate unnecessary incarceration, and our participation in the Safety and Justice Challenge has been crucial in helping us make headway toward this goal,” Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath said. “The additional support will help us continue this work, while also pushing our justice reform efforts further.”

The Criminal Justice Commission was previously awarded a $150,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation, with work from a group of local leaders in the legal community, including Colbath, Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg and Palm Beach County Public Defender Carey Haughwout.

Based on the promise and progress of that work, Palm Beach County became one of eight counties in the nation selected by MacArthur Wednesday for the additional funding.

In their research, they found blacks make up a disproportionately large portion of the county jail population, making up 19 percent of the county population but 50 percent of the jail population. Hispanics represent 21 percent of the population and 17 percent of the jail population.

The study also found a disparity in the average time spent in jail, with blacks spending 44 days; Hispanics, 40 days; and whites, 25 days.

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