WASHINGTON (Feb. 7, 2022) —The COVID-19 pandemic presented a unique problem to local jails. A lack of funding and resources, coupled with increased population transiency, translated to a significant increase in the risk of viral spread. Social distancing measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in local jails were difficult, if not impossible, to comply with, necessitating emergency rule changes. This allowed law enforcement, courts and corrections to utilize alternatives to incarceration to effectively respond to crime while also reducing inmate populations.

In a new report, R Street Institute resident fellow Christi Smith examines data from the past 21 months of the pandemic alongside a wide array of existing research to demonstrate the effectiveness of these alternatives to arrest. A thorough review of these strategies, along with data showing no corresponding increase in crime, provide significant evidence that they are a viable tool in reducing jail populations, racial disparities among those jailed, and long-term negative impacts on the accused, while keeping communities safe.

“Pretrial detention and short-term incarceration of non-violent offenders are often costly and ineffective. They have long-term negative ripple effects on both the individual and community at large,” said Smith. “Meanwhile, for the right price, dangerous individuals can be released on bail, while poor, nonviolent individuals remain behind bars.”

Smith finds that alternative approaches, such as decreasing pretrial detention for non-violent offenders, curtailing plea bargaining and expanding deferred prosecution programs are more cost effective and efficient, while still keeping the community safe and holding criminals accountable. The adoption of these policies can also help reduce racial and ethnic disparities in jail populations, where minority individuals are overrepresented.

As the U.S. courts continue to face a massive backlog of criminal cases, some of these measures can help lessen the caseload. A return to the status quo post-pandemic would be counterproductive and costly to relevant stakeholders, including law-abiding citizens, taxpayers and the law enforcement officers who serve them.

Three key points:

  • Pretrial detention is fundamentally at odds with the presumption of innocence. Its overuse disproportionately penalizes legally innocent people who lack the funds to secure bail.

  • Short-term incarceration produces long-term disruptions in housing, employment, relationships and economic stability, for individuals and for their dependents, which has the potential to increase an individual’s return to crime.

  • There are a myriad of alternatives to jail time for allegations of crime, or violations of community supervision. These approaches are more cost effective and efficient, while still achieving the goals of public safety and holding law violators accountable.

Read the full study here.

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