Over 11 million people pass through our country’s 3,100 jails annually, many charged with low-level crimes. This costs roughly $22 billion each year. In county jails, 64% of inmates suffer a mental illness, 68% have an addictive disorder, and 44% have a chronic health condition. A small number of these vulnerable people go through our jails, hospital emergency rooms, homeless shelters, and other public serviced repeatedly, usually with poor outcomes.
Every day, over 450,000 people are held before trial. They account for almost 63% of the total jail population, even though they have yet to be convicted. A recent study of Riker’s Island jail found over 86% of the detained were held on bonds less than $500. In 2014, Charlotte-Mecklenburg of North Carolina began using data-based risk assessment systems to pinpoint low-risk individuals in jails and to find ways to release them safely. Since the area began using this precursor to the Data-Driven Justice Initiative, many more low-risk people have been released. The total jail population in that county has dropped 40% with no reported increase in crime.
In order to break the pernicious cycle of incarceration, the White House has launched the Data-Driven Justice Initiative with a coalition of 67 local and state governments committed to using these strategies to remove low-level offenders from the justice system and to improve current approaches to pre-trial imprisonment. These strategies have been proven to measurably reduce needlessly large jail populations in many communities. They have also helped to stabilize families, help at-risk individuals, better serve communities, and save public money at the same time.
The communities implementing the DDJ will use these strategies to reduce rates of excessive incarceration:
DDJ communities will use information from criminal justice and health care databases to pinpoint the individuals with the largest amount of contacts with authority agencies and services to connect them with health, mental health, and social services to reduce reliance on emergency services and encounters with the justice system.
Recognizing that police, EMS, and firefighters are front-line responders to persons in the middle of a mental health crisis, DDJ compliant communities will put systems and protocols in place to help first responders to de-escalate dangerous situations and divert individuals safely into more appropriate services rather than arresting them by default.
Communities implementing the DDJ will use objective, data-based risk assessment methods, and tools to identify low-risk suspects and defendants who are being held in jail and to discover ways to affect their safe release.
The administration has outlined a number of additional commitments set out as goals for the Data-Driven Justice Initiative. This includes:
The toolkit provides concrete methods for jurisdictions to develop pre-arrest diversion programs. The toolkits will offer links to Federal resources and a funding chart to assist county jurisdictions in identifying opportunities to support their diversion programs.
Working with Veterans Justice Outreach Specialists to coordinate with police departments and other justice system professionals to develop a functioning mental health diversion protocol for eligible Veterans, as an alternative to arrest where applicable.
Major mental health organizations will work with DDJ compliant communities, to address the needs of persons cycling between the justice system and homeless shelters.
A number of national nonprofit organizations have been named as important and strategic community partners in the implementation of these progressive initiatives. A primary focal point of the Data-Driven Justice Initiative is to create and learn new ways to respond to emergency situations in a more positive and effective way. Currently, many who have contact with the justice system can be better served by diverting them to nonprofits that can provide behavioral or mental health services that address their needs. These nonprofits can be equipped to intervene and to reduce the exorbitant cost of over-utilizing the criminal justice system as a blanket response.
One outstanding example comes from Knoxville, Tennessee, where a partnership between police and a local nonprofit social service agency that provides substance abuse and mental health services have joined forces. The partnership was started with the idea that moving at risk individuals between jails and emergency centers in an endless cycle is not an effective approach. Knoxville’s police chief, David Rausch has told reporters that their new approach is proving to be much more effective for people in crisis, as well as for their families and for the entire community in Knoxville.
For decades, inefficiencies in the relationship between criminal justice and mental health have been a problem. Now, perhaps with the sweeping changes that these programs promise to create, as well as improved public awareness about the difference between an at-risk individual and a criminal, we can begin to finally address these important social issues.