Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), a nonprofit research organization, poses a simple question for officials pushing for jail expansion that could make them think twice: “How many people in our jail have mental health or substance use disorders?”
In a report published on May 6, PPI compiles numerous other thought-provoking questions and best practices for local decision-makers to consider when moving forward—or not—with plans to construct new or bigger jails.
It notes that, nationally, the majority of people detained in jail have not been convicted of a crime—and that some people are jailed simply because they couldn’t afford to pay court fees and fines. And it outlines how officials can avoid expanding jails by implementing programs that prevent people who use drugs from ending up there in the first place.
The report’s author, Alexi Jones, has the following additional questions for decison-makers to consider when it comes to drugs:
* Has our county explored starting or expanding community-based treatment programs to reduce the likelihood that people with substance use or mental health problems will be arrested?
* Does our county have specialized policing responses, such as crisis intervention teams (CITs) and police-mental health co-responder teams, that are designed to help link people with mental health and substance use treatment without arrest?
* What specialized “diversion” courts, such as drug, mental health, and veterans’ courts, is our county using to divert people into more effective treatments than jail? Is the treatment offered through this court evidence-based, such as Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)? Is it free and accessible to all?
“Building new jail space typically costs tens of millions of dollars or more, even as other options that are both more cost-effective and more compassionate are ignored,” said Jones. “If policymakers can’t answer these questions about why more jail space is necessary, they should not be undertaking jail expansion.”
A staggering 68 percent of the jail population meets standards for diagnosis of a substance use disorder (SUD). As Tracie Gardner of Legal Action Center recently wrote for Filter: “The jail and prison system has in many instances … become the de facto healthcare provider for low-income individuals of color with substance use disorders and mental health issues.”
And that’s clearly disastrous. While there are many ethical grounds to oppose incarceration, being in jail can have specifically deadly consequences for people with SUDs: Within the first two weeks after their release, recently incarcerated people are 40 times more likely to die from an overdose than the general population.
Drug courts are also proposed as a tool to divert people who use drugs from incarceration, though PPI recognizes that such programs—especially those that require abstinence and don’t offer “gold standard” MAT medications for people with opioid use disorder—can themselves be major drivers of incarceration.
The proposed measures are not easy or perfect, but represent an attempt to meet local decision-makers “where they’re at” by suggesting incremental, politically realistic immediate alternatives to jail.
Much deeper structural reforms are needed. But notwithstanding the many harms of law enforcement encroachment into social work and alternative forms of “correctional control,” keeping anyone in the outside world, rather than behind bars, has to be considered a positive first step.
Graphic: Prison Policy Initiative