Every year, across the United States, 11 million people are admitted into local jails. Of that vast number of justice-involved Americans, nearly 75 percent are being held for nonviolent traffic, property, drug or public order charges. While sometimes short-term detainment in jail is necessary, the reality is that jails are often used to house individuals who could be better served remaining in their communities. The collateral consequences of a few days in jail can completely upend a person’s life and run contrary to the goals of deterrence and rehabilitation the correctional system purports to offer. Presently, jails are overused, and both public safety and community health suffer because of it.

People who are incarcerated in a local jail, for as little as a week, suffer severe disruptive consequences—like job loss—which can lead to financial instability, housing insecurity, psychological issues and further interaction with the justice system. In most facilities, the average length of a stay in jail is 10 to 20 days—a hugely disruptive period of time that can directly lead to the loss of employment. For instance, a South Carolina man, Walter Scott, was incarcerated for two weeks for failing to pay child support, and because of that period of detention, Mr. Scott lost his job. He said that he “lost the best job I ever had.” Even after his release, his troubles grew, as did his debt, and tragically, he was fatally shot by a police officer after an altercation during a traffic stop. The terrible spiral that Mr. Scott experienced is rare, but in the five years since his death, too many people are still experiencing similar short stints of detention in local jails and suffering from the consequences of incarceration.

Research has found that the cost of incarceration not only immediately affects a person’s employment status but also can diminish an individual’s future earnings. If and when a formerly incarcerated person finds new employment, hourly wages for some drop by approximately 11 percent. Furthermore, in 23 percent of situations, housing, like apartments or rental houses, is lost, due to either the arrest itself or an inability to pay.

Decreased wages and fewer employment opportunities often lead to poverty, which is correlated with multiple arrests—nearly half of people with multiple arrests in the past year had individual incomes below $10,000 per year, according to studies. Life stressors like lost employment and unstable housing situations can precipitate additional interaction with the justice system.

All of this raises serious questions about whether our local justice systems, which detain so many individuals who have not committed a violent offense and are not a threat to public safety, are good for the country in their current incarnations as they increase recidivism and negatively impact millions of Americans annually.

Additionally, in light of the continuing danger of the coronavirus, it is critical that law enforcement officers and court administrators limit who is detained in local jail facilities. Historically, jails have been a hotbed for the transmission of contagious diseases like Hepatitis C, MRSA and tuberculosis. With crowded conditions and no hope of proper social distancing, the expectation that COVID-19 will continue to run through local jails is high as we have seen the deadly outcomes in the last year. By decreasing the number of individuals detained in a local jail, we can help prevent the spread of the virus not only to the incarcerated population but also to correctional officers, administrators and their families.

But there are alternatives in place if we are willing to support them—a strong criminal justice system has a middle ground between arrest and detention or nothing at all. Increasing the use of prosecutorial and judicial discretion to allow individuals to be released on their own recognizance can reduce the collateral damage of short-term jail sentences. Moreover, the choice is over broader than sending to someone to jail or allowing release, many jurisdictional pretrial services exist—like substance abuse treatment or electronic monitoring—and should often be used in lieu of detention.

County jails are operated by local governments; their populations are largely determined by local policies, practices, and agency regulations and practices, which means that meaningful changes can be initiated by robust local leadership from city mayors and county sheriffs. In conclusion, moving away from over-incarceration in local jails can promote public safety by helping justice-impacted individuals retain economic stability and will impact public health by creating a space where viruses do not run unchecked through overcrowded facilities.

Image credit: txking