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Over a Quarter of Americans Believe Their Local Justice System Is Unfair

A new poll from the MacArthur Foundation finds most Americans' sentiments about the justice system are at odds with the Trump administration's punitive policies.
An inmate holds onto a fence at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana.

In the year since President Donald Trump vowed to put a stop to an epidemic of "American carnage," his administration has made sweeping changes to the Department of Justice's policies. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has chipped away at President Barack Obama's justice reform efforts, cutting back on federal oversight of police departments and reversing course on mandatory minimums, marijuana policy, and private prisons.

The changes could send federal prison populations climbing again. And while federal prisons hold fewer incarcerated Americans than state prisons or jails, the return to more punitive federal policies could have a cooling effect on state and local efforts for criminal justice reform—something few Americans want to see happen in their local jails, according to a new survey from the MacArthur Foundation.

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Some 11 million people cycle through the nation's 3,200 jails every year, the vast majority of them not yet convicted of a crime. Over 60 percent of people in jails have yet to face trial; some are considered by a judge to be dangerous or a flight risk, others simply can't afford bail. Those locked up while awaiting trial often lose their jobs and housing. Research also shows that they are more likely to ultimately be convicted than those who make cash bail.

"Many of the people in jail have been involved in what I would call crimes of poverty," says Laurie Garduque, the director of justice reform at the MacArthur Foundation. "When you look at the demographics of the jail population you find people who can't make low money bail, you find people who are involved in shoplifting, you find people who haven't paid their fines and fees from their traffic tickets or other what we call legal financial obligations."

At least 28 percent of Americans believe their local justice system is unfair, according to the new survey. The poll, which was conducted by RTI International and Zogby Analytics, surveyed a nationally representative sample of over 3,000 adults in the United States.

Nearly three-quarters of Americans support the use of pre-trial services, procedures that allow the court to release and monitor defendants leading up to trial. When it comes to sentencing those convicted, 60 percent of Americans favored rehabilitation or treatment for non-violent offenders, as opposed to "punishing the person for committing the crime" or "keeping the person off the street so they can't commit more crimes." A full 75 percent of Americans favored treatment over jail time for those with a mental illness convicted of all but the most serious crimes.

Indeed, those in jail who have already been convicted are usually there for low-level, non-violent crimes, as jails only house those sentenced to a year or less of incarceration. At least 75 percent of detainees are there for non-violent offenses, according to Garduque, and at least 17 percent of the jailed have behavioral health problems. A 2014 report from the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs' Association found that jails house 10 times more people with mental illnesses than state hospitals.

The survey was conducted as part of the Safety and Justice Challenge, the MacArthur Foundation's initiative to curtail the overuse of jails in 40 jurisdictions across 25 states. The 3,200-plus jails across the country are subject to varying state laws, economics, and demographics, factors that make public support for reform all the more important. "It's a local problem that requires local solutions," Laurie says.