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Studies: In MacArthur Cities, Less Jail Didn't Fuel More Crime

A privately funded program working to reduce local jail populations in dozens of cities and counties nationwide commissioned a pair of studies that it says prove there was no relationship between jail reforms and increases in violence during the pandemic. The MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) announced the results of the studies conducted by the CUNY Institute for State & Local Governance and the JFA Institute, which covered a combined 23 cities and counties from among the 57 that the Safety and Justice Challenge is funding. “The data are clear. We can reduce the use of jail, the harm of unnecessary incarceration, and the number of people in jail without compromising public safety,” Laurie Garduque, MacArthur Foundation’s director of criminal justice, said in a prepared statement. “We cannot accept false narratives that blame reforms to the criminal justice system for increases in crime. We will continue to conduct research that supports reform, debunks harmful myths, and provides us with the information we need to fix our broken criminal justice system, while safely reducing the nation’s jail population.”


The CUNY study examined violent crime, incarceration and rebooking data from SJC sites through April 2021, comparing the data before communities joined the SJC, after they began making reforms but before the start of the pandemic, and then since the pandemic. The study concluded there was no apparent correlation between jail shrinkage and increases in violent crime through the pandemic, with SJC sites showing jail releases above the national average but violent crime mirroring national trends. Rebookings into jail on felony charges ticked up somewhat post-covid — 19% versus 13-16% before — with 2-3% of people rebooked within six months of release on a violent crime charge, both pre- and post-covid. The JFA report looked at 11 cities and counties with data through December 2020, finding a "clear, consistent pattern of both crime and jail populations declining in tandem" since covid restrictions were imposed. The historic jail population drops of 2020 — "never had jail populations declined so much in such a short time frame, universally, across the country," the JFA report states — have not yet fully rebounded. Since 2016, the SJC has invested more than $323 million to support local criminal justice reforms. The combined jail populations in the first Safety and Justice Challenge cities dropped by 18% in the first three years, and then by another 14% overall during the pandemic shutdown.

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