Editorial: County leaders taking bold step in examining jail problems

The biggest players in Palm Beach County’s criminal justice system have banded together in a serious effort to reduce the jail population.

They are convinced the system is out of whack.

And the consequences are often severe. If you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck, being sent to jail for even five days or less can mean losing your job — which may cost you your house, fracture your marriage and put you at higher risk of committing another crime. Which, in turn, enmeshes you more deeply in the criminal justice system.

It just may be that we’re incubating more crime by keeping low-risk offenders in jail too much. “You want to get the right people out of jail, and you want to keep the right people in jail. You’ve got to figure out who they are,” said Palm Beach County Chief Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Colbath.

Colbath, along with Public Defender Carrie Haughwout, State Attorney Dave Aronberg and West Palm Beach Police Chief Bryan Kummerlen, all members of the county’s Criminal Justice Commission, spoke Wednesday to The Post Editorial Board about their unusual partnership — and their hopes of finding innovative solutions to the distortions of the criminal justice system that they oversee.

They’re getting crucial help from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which has undertaken a nationwide $75 million project to cut the U.S. jail population: 731,000 per day, a major contributor to this nation’s dubious standing as world leader in incarceration rates. Unlike prisons, county and city jails hold people for a relatively short time. In Florida, that’s generally one year or less.

Palm Beach County is one of 20 winners — out of 191 applicants —of $150,000 grants. Since May, the county’s judges, cops, prosecutors, defenders have been working with MacArthur consultants to analyze the system. In January, they are to submit an action plan. In the spring, MacArthur will reward the 10 best plans with major grants of up to $2 million a year for up to five years to put the ideas into practice. Winning one of these would be big: real money to help solve a real problem.

The ultimate goal: trim the county’s present jail population of 2,550 by 15 percent to 19 percent — and, consequently, see a reduction in recidivism.

Who’s in the county jail? Two-thirds of the inmates are awaiting court appearances; they haven’t been convicted of anything. Many are in there for driving with a suspended license — a result of the Florida Legislature’s having made a loss of a driver’s license a catch-all punishment for all kinds of offenses, such as being caught passing a bad check or on the sidewalk with a small amount of marijuana.

Many of the jailed have missed mandated drug tests because they couldn’t afford them. Others are suffering from mental illness gone untreated for lack of professional help.

Almost half the inmates are African American, although blacks make up about 19 percent of the county population. They stay in jail an average of 31 days, whereas whites stay 18 days.

The grant gives the county’s criminal-justice leadership the resources to study how cops decide whom to arrest; how judges decide whom to hold for jail or let go on bond; how prosecutors decide what charges to bring. They hope to bring more uniformity and common sense to the process. And to eliminate racial and class stereotypes in deciding how to enforce the law.

“We’ve got to figure out who we’re afraid of, versus who we’re angry at,” Colbath said.

County leaders have shown courage and insight in taking on this project. We’re the only county in Florida to have been awarded one of these MacArthur grants, and we’re in such company as Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Cook County, Ill.

This isn’t a bleeding-heart effort to be nicer to criminals. “It’s fighting crime in a smarter way,” Aronberg said. “Instead of revolving-door justice, it’s to address the core problem that keeps a person back on the street… If we address the core, we’ll make everyone in the community safer.”

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