It's hard to disagree with those who argue America's criminal justice system is broken, especially when you read some of the statistics cited by the White House when it announced its new Data-Driven Justice Initiative. As part of the initiative, 67 cities, counties and states have committed to using data to identify and proactively break the cycle of incarceration. As you'll see below, the issue isn't only about the high cost of incarceration, although that is a factor. It's also about fairness and compassion. -- Philip Bane
Every year more than 11 million people move through America’s 3,100 local jails, many on low-level, non-violent misdemeanors, costing local governments approximately $22 billion a year.
Who are they? According to a White House fact sheet:
- 64% of them are people who suffer from mental illness
- 68% have a substance abuse disorder
- 44% suffer from chronic health problems
Many communities find that a relatively small number of these highly-vulnerable people cycle repeatedly through local jails, but also through hospital emergency rooms, shelters and other public systems. Along the way they receive fragmented and uncoordinated care at great cost to American taxpayers, with poor outcomes.
Miami-Dade finds a better way
Over a four-year period, officials in Miami-Dade County, Florida found that just 97 people with serious mental illness spent more than 39,000 days in either jail, emergency rooms, state hospitals or psychiatric facilities in their county – accounting for $13.7 million in services.
After the county trained 911 dispatchers and police officers in mental health de-escalation techniques, the results were eye-opening. Over the past five years, police have responded to nearly 50,000 calls regarding people in mental-health crises, but made only 109 arrests. Instead, they diverted 10,000 people to services or safely stabilized the situation without arrest.
Additionally, according to the White House, the jail population fell from over 7,000 to just over 4,700, and the county was able to close an entire jail facility, saving nearly $12 million a year.
Using a data-based strategy in NC
Many people who are in jail – and not yet convicted of any crime – are there because they can't afford bail. Officials in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina wanted to do something about that. In 2014 they started using a data-based risk assessment tool to identify low-risk people in their jails and ways to release them safely.
The result? Since they started using the tool and releasing more low-risk individuals, the jail population has dropped 40% with no increase in crime.
And these sorts of innovative strategies to reduce the number of mentally ill and low-risk offenders behind bars are what the Obama Administration is calling for in its new Data-Driven Justice Initiative.
The 67 jurisdictions taking part have committed to:
- Using data from criminal justice and health systems to identify and proactively break the cycle of incarceration
- Equipping law enforcement and first responders with the tools they need to respond and divert people appropriate service providers instead of arresting them
- Use data-driven, validated, pre-trial risk assessment tools to inform pre-trial release decisions
For its part, the White House plans to develop a toolkit with best practices and step-by-step guidance for communities interested in developing a strong pre-arrest diversion program. With veterans accounting for approximately 7% of people in local jails and 55% of them with a mental illness, the Administration also pledged to improve mental health services for vets. And to help spur further innovation and sharing, it has recruited private sector, community organizations and nonprofits to join the initiative.
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This article is from the Council's Compassionate Cities initiative which highlights how city leaders and other stakeholders can leverage smart technologies to end suffering in their communities and give all citizens a route out of poverty. Click the Compassionate Cities box on our registration page to receive our weekly newsletter.
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