The Racial Disparities of Local Jails

The Racial Disparities of Local Jails

Jails face significant but surmountable challenges when it comes to fighting racial disparities, according to a new paper released by the Brennan Center for Justice. We recently spoke with Jessica Eaglin, a coauthor of the report, and Inimai Chettiar, the director of the Brennan Center's Justice Program, to talk about the causes of and possible solutions to this racial gap. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

The report focuses on jails, which are managed locally, instead of prisons run by the states or the federal government. Why did you decide to do this, and how are the two different with regards to racial and ethnic disparities?

Eaglin: We decided to focus on jails because they are sort of the entry point for the criminal-justice system. Almost everybody who enters prison comes through jail first, and people who don't end up in prison often spend time in jail as well.

Prisoners are people who have been convicted of crimes, and they spend typically more than a year in state- or federally-run facilities, whereas jails usually include people who are there for a short period of time, for sentences that are less than a year. They include people who haven't been convicted of a crime, but who are just being held while they are waiting for adjudication about a charge that is brought against them, which are called pre-trial detainees. And these people can end up spending a large amount of time incarcerated, even though they technically don't end up in prison.

So this is what we consider the front end of the criminal-justice system. So many people are affected by this — about 11.4 million people go through jails every year, whereas prisons hold about 1.5, 1.6 million people. A lot of the racial disparities that exist in the criminal-justice system happen at this front end, and they compound over time for every step through the criminal-justice process. A lot of the reasons we have racial disparities at all are the beginning steps that we identify in the report.

Once someone's gone through the jail system and experienced these things, are there any effects outside of the jail?

Eaglin: Yes. One of the points that we highlight as a primary driver of racial disparities is this unnecessary pre-trial detention. And what's interesting about pre-trial detention is that individuals — black, white, or other — who are subjected to pre-trial detention are likely to have more negative effects as they are processed through the criminal-justice system.

That's actually true for almost all of the drivers that we identify in the report. But in the context, specifically, of pre-trial detention, individuals who are detained prior to their trial or prior to some sort of decision about their case are two or three times more likely to be sentenced to prison in comparison to people who are released pre-trial. And once they actually get to sentencing, people who have been detained pre-trial are more likely to receive jail sentences as opposed to individuals who might not have been detained pre-trial, who may get probation or some sort of other supervision in the community. And those sentences are more likely to be longer — their jail sentences are three times longer, and their prison sentences are twice as long.

So people who are detained pre-trial are going to experience more negative consequences as they continue to be processed through the criminal-justice system. This is a good example of how the disparities that we identify here — disparities in contact with the police, disparities with who specifically stays in jail, with who stays there for longer — have these long-term effects that can develop more negative consequences for the criminal-justice system.

But those consequences aren't limited to just criminal-justice system outcomes. There are socioeconomic negative consequences as well. So lots of jobs, lots of incomes are affected, and that can be a very destabilizing experience for individuals that make it more difficult for them to acclimate to a law-abiding lifestyle.

A stated goal of the paper is to reduce disparities while ensuring public safety. How would you measure success?

Chettiar: What police should be measuring is a drop in crime as well as a drop in arrest and incarceration. So we're actually advocating a different way to measure success that's not based on increasing the volume of people going into the criminal-justice system, because as we know that's not an effective way to bring down crime and it creates the consequence of mass incarceration.

Eaglin: What we find through our research is that it's actually an issue of a lack of information, particularly at the local level. The number of arrests, the number of convictions, the number of pre-trial detainees — these are kind of broad-stroke numbers that don't really get at the heart of where the racial disparities are and why they exist.

So in the recommendations, when we talk about success measures, what we're really pushing for is for jurisdictions to go in and look at how and why we have racial disparities. When you see that, say, 60 percent of your arrests are African-Americans, but only 15 percent of the population of the community is African-American, that suggests that something's wrong, but it doesn't actually tell you where the disparities are coming from. And so to create success measures, you actually have to look at your policies and identify the ones that might be problematic

One of your recommendations is for police departments and the courts to not rely so much on fees or seized property for revenue. But a detail from your report also stood out to me, when you noted that this practice was cited by many local police departments as being important for their budgets. What's an alternative way of raising necessary funds?

Eaglin: There are several ways. I think part of it is being able to seek out funding to help support different policy changes. There are institutes like the MacArthur Foundation that are really trying to effect change and trying to find alternatives to incarceration and alternative ways of running systems.

But when you talk about seizures and fines, I think it's really important to think about how much money is actually being lost on enforcement in several different ways. You're almost talking about two different things. Or I guess there's a disconnect between what you're talking about, because we spend so much money trying to collect criminal-justice debt that whatever income that police were making is offset by that.

Many of these recommendations came from a roundtable discussion that the Brennan Center hosted last October with a panel of 25 experts. Were there any issues where the experts disagreed?

Eaglin: I wouldn't say there were disagreements. It was just different perspectives on the part of different players in the criminal-justice system. Actually, that supports one of our other recommendations, which is to get people to have task forces, to have these conversations with different types of players in the criminal-justice system, because the things that they gauge, the ways that they analyze their own success, can be different. And so when we had the conversation, we talked about things like success measures and measuring arrests, measuring convictions, things like that. There was a consensus with prosecutors, with police officers, and with the other officials in the room that these were not the best ways to measure success.

Chettiar: What I was really struck by is that there was a lot of consensus on decreasing the number of people who are coming through the system for low-level offenses. If we diverted people who had committed or were suspected of committing low-level crimes at very early stages, from arrest to prosecution to jail detention, then we could dramatically reduce our incarcerated population and the racial disparities. And so I was struck by having law enforcement, prosecutors — you know, people who are not necessarily seen as being soft on crime — saying that we really need to be reducing the number of low-level people coming through the system. And that recommendation is reflected in the report.

Matthew Disler is a RealClearPolitics intern.

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