Bebeto Matthews / AP

MacArthur Foundation aims to cut US jail population

The foundation is making $150,000 grants to 20 jails, in launch of $75M effort to reform the criminal justice system

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is giving 20 jails of all sizes $150,000 each to come up with ways to reduce the number of people unnecessarily behind bars.

The grants are the first step in the Chicago-based charitable group's plan to spend $75 million over the next five years to bring more fairness to the criminal justice system.

"At the end of the day, what we're talking about is systemic change," said Julia Stasch, MacArthur's president.

About 12 million people pass through the roughly 3,000 local jails in the U.S. every year, most for nonviolent offenses. MacArthur officials and others note that jails, which, unlike state prisons, mostly detain inmates who are pretrial, have increasingly become warehouses for mentally ill people and those too poor to afford bail.

The selected jails will design a plan and work with experts to coordinate judges, prosecutors, court administrators, police and correction officials to make the criminal justice system run more efficiently, Stasch said. Half of the 20 will then be picked for a second round of funding of $500,000 to $2 million next year to put the plans in place.

The nation's biggest jail systems, in Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago and Philadelphia, were selected for the planning grants as well as smaller lockups, such as the rural 239-bed jail in Mesa, Colorado. In Pennington County, South Dakota, which contains the Pine Ridge reservation of the Oglala Lakota Tribe, the grant will go to the sheriff's office and judicial officials to support drug courts, behavioral health programs and alternative sentences for juveniles.

MacArthur officials said the grants were awarded to counties addressing a host of criminal justice issues, including the sometimes conflicting missions of law enforcement agencies that can result in mistrust of the authorities and fairness of the courts.

To that end, jails in two places at the center of high-profile deaths of black men by white police officers in the past year — in St. Louis County, Missouri, which includes Ferguson, and Charleston County, South Carolina, which includes North Charleston — will be receiving grants.

"Our bigger ambition than just reducing the population really goes to the fairness and equity of the system," Stasch said. "We really believe that the hyperincarceration in this country really starts there in local cities and counties."

The Associated Press

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