NEW YORK – Eleven U.S. jail systems will receive millions of dollars in grants to overhaul operations in order to reduce their overall inmate populations — some by as much as one third, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced Wednesday.
The two-year grants of between $1.5 million and $3 million to jails in big cities like New York and smaller ones in places such as Charleston County, South Carolina, are meant to upend how jails function nationwide to reduce unnecessary incarceration, said Laurie Garduque, who is heading the Chicago-based charitable group's initiative.
"The foundation's goal is to change the way the nation thinks about and uses jails," she said. "The whole idea of the initiative is to model best practices, have models of reform, so that other jurisdictions can implement them on their own."
There are about 12 million admissions annually across the more than 3,000 jails in the country. While inmates inside state and federal prisons have recently been the focus of sentencing and other reforms, how local lockups operate has received far less attention.
Most jails hold people accused of a crime before a trial, and experts say too many of those held are there on nonviolent offenses because they can't afford bail, have serious mental illnesses or suffer from drug addictions.
Almost 200 jurisdictions in 45 states and territories applied for MacArthur funding after the foundation announced last year it planned to spend $75 million over five years to make the criminal justice system fairer.
The nine other jurisdictions receiving the MacArthur funding are:
— Pima County, Arizona, which includes Tucson.
— Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston.
— Connecticut, where all jails are run by the state.
— New Orleans.
— Lucas County, Ohio, which includes Toledo.
— Milwaukee County, Wisconsin.
— Spokane County, Washington.
— St. Louis County, Missouri.
In St. Louis County, which includes Ferguson among the nearly 30 townships across its 500-square-mile border, officials hope to shrink the 1,300-person county lockup's inmate population by as much as 20 percent over three years, said Beth Huebner of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who is working on the effort.
They'll do that by simplifying county court websites so that the thousands of residents who get traffic tickets every year know where and when to appear to pay their fines and by focusing on pretrial release for low-level offenders, such as those who violate probation, who stay in jail longer than others, Huebner said.
"Our goal is to focus on procedural justice ... which is basically how justice is served," she said. "Who are we afraid of versus who are we mad at?"
In New York, where the overall number of inmates sent to the city's notorious Rikers Island jail complex has already shrunk in recent years, officials said they hoped to reduce the roughly 9,000-inmate population by another 20 percent in the next five years, said Elizabeth Glazer, who heads the mayor's office of criminal justice.
"The big things are who goes in and how long they stay," said Glazer, describing a problem that will require officials to examine everything from how it transports inmates to courthouses to what programs it can create for low-level offenders with serious drug problems.