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How Over-Incarceration Is Driving a Push for Criminal Justice Reform

A conversation with Jasmine Heiss from the Vera Institute of Justice about a recent poll that uncovers American's souring sentiment toward incarceration policy.

It's no secret that America has an incarceration problem. And being "tough on crime" is something politicians proclaim in election years to prove that they care about safety. But a recent poll commissioned by the Vera Institute of Justice shows that the tide is turning when it comes to what people want for their communities. A majority of Americans—67 percent overall, including 61 percent in rural areas—agreed that building more jails and prisons does not reduce crime.

While politicians make remarks about the dangers of "inner-city crime," incarceration rates in major cities have fallen while rural communities have seen the most growth in incarceration rates and the jail population. Across the nation, when those polled were asked what they wanted their communities to invest in to improve quality of life, building prisons and jails (35 percent) lagged far behind other measures like providing jobs and job training (92 percent), investing in schools and youth programs (87 percent), and investing in mental-health treatment centers (87 percent).

In fact, nearly half (49 percent) of respondents said they believed "too many people are in jail for the wrong reasons," and 55 percent agreed that the country's criminal justice system discriminates against poor people. CityLab spoke with Jasmine Heiss, a director of outreach and public affairs strategist at Vera, about what this new data means and how it might lead to changes in policy around incarceration.


Was there anything that surprised you about these findings?

I think the most interesting part from looking at the findings [is] how they match up to the geography of incarceration. Vera decided to undertake the survey because incarceration is climbing in rural areas as it is decreasing in cities: Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, even Philadelphia. We know that incarceration rates are rising, which often reflects a tough-on-crime stance. But that approach is not supported by people who live there. The percentage of people who would describe themselves as concerned if they knew incarceration rates in their community were higher than those in similar communities: 60 percent overall, and 66 percent in rural areas. This points to the fact that the nation is ready for an urban-rural movement against incarceration.

The report at one point says that "the country has concluded that what we are doing, the system of locking a lot of people up in prisons and jails, is not working." How did this shift come about?

I think one of the drivers was not just an increased recognition of human toll, but that it wasn't financially sustainable for many states or counties. America's smallest places are now home to some of the most outsize jails, and in some cases have overbuilt those systems to take advantage of things like holding state or federal prisoners to [balance] their budgets.

What role, if any, has the new wave of progressive prosecutors played in this reversal?

When you're looking at jails specifically, it's often judges that play an even more outsized role than prosecutors. We released a profile of Montgomery County in New York, and when [the researcher] went there to look [at the cause] behind high incarceration rates in Montgomery—which is a tiny industrialized city—it was largely due to one or two system actors: the local judge, who was referred to by other members of the justice system as "the time machine," because he charged everyone who went before him with the maximum fee and locked up those who couldn't pay.

When you're thinking about county-level incarceration, the landscape is shaped by a few policy decisions by a handful of people who have tremendous power to change trends. Polling noticed people have doubts about the ability of judges to deliver justice. I think we definitely need to think about prosecutors, but there are people who touch other parts of criminal justice system, and I would love to see reform candidates in that arena.

What part has the growth in the rural jail population played in changing public perception of incarceration?

It's hard to say definitively what's happening, but I think you can speculate that proximity to incarceration has probably led to a key change. If you think of a small county that has a rate of incarceration that's five times higher than New York City's, it is a reminder that almost everyone who lives there is incredibly proximate to the issue. It's a personal issue.

Opioid and other addictions as well as mental-health issues are a large contributing factor for many who end up in jail. As some of these topics become more widely understood, is the country changing how it thinks about who we incarcerate and why?

I think something that's really important to note is the shift in incarceration pre-dates the opioid epidemic. Rural areas and small cities began driving incarceration since the mid to late '90s. In the same way, many of our jails have become warehouses for people with substance abuse and mental-health issues: it's having a hammer so everything looks like a nail.

There is an appetite to emphasize and invest in job training, community based mental health, violence prevention. It points to the fact that people realize those things actually make communities safer and stronger. When we asked about things like construction and building priorities and quality of life, prisons and jails ranked dead last.

Are there any other key factors that have led to this shift in perception?

Doubts about the fairness of the criminal justice system around class are particularly pronounced. When you think of the disparate impact around lines of race and class; when you see communities that are not thriving economically, they're more likely to feel over-incarceration—particularly with jail fines and fees, and bail, where your ability to pay affects in a profound way your ability to access justice.

Did the 2016 election have anything to do with this shift? Or has this change in worldview been snowballing for a while?

I would say I think it's been snowballing for a while. The national rhetoric has helped shape how people approach issues. But many parts of the country that voted for Donald Trump also believe incarceration rates are too high.

The poll data shows that 71 percent of respondents found a reform candidate, one who advocated for community investment over incarceration, appealing. What does this say to you about the future of incarceration policy?

We're sort of all eyes on Congress as a nation, and beyond that to the White House. This year, next year, there will be elections in counties across the country of people who fundamentally help shape what incarceration looks like, and in both urban and rural areas there's support for someone who supports creating community based treatment and economic opportunities. We need to emphasize the political possibility for reform—it's open. Some candidates are already carving that path but it needs to happen everywhere.

What will it take for policies to reflect this, and when will politicians start taking note?

I think the most important thing is [thinking about it] the same way people think about education and education spending, public health and public-health spending: when they go to the ballot box and hold elected officials accountable. Understanding your incarceration story should be a part of that calculus. That's what will help create a national movement. I would point to a few smaller cities across the country that have very recently rejected proposals to expand jails: Pueblo County, Colorado, Whatcom County, Washington. There is a ballot referendum that got mailed yesterday in Douglas County, Kansas that has tied jail expansion to community-based health treatment and in Pueblo, for example, they have twice rejected a proposal to build a bigger jail.

Each community's incarceration story is unique, and reflects a set of decisions made by a whole range of actors. But fundamentally, what it needs to look like is not using incarceration as a deeper response to a whole range of social issues: substance use, homelessness. Reflecting on Montgomery County research to find a way to find cities, counties, and justice systems that do not look like criminal justice debt on the backs of the most vulnerable people. Incarcerating someone from an inability to pay is unconstitutional, and does not make for a vibrant or safe community.

This story originally appeared on CityLab, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to CityLab's newsletters and follow CityLab on Facebook and Twitter.