When it comes to America’s debate on mass incarceration, systemic problems at large urban jails like Rikers Island and Cook County often feature prominently in the conversation. But swelling jail populations in small and rural counties are more responsible than previously thought for driving incarceration rates. With nearly 11 million admissions per year, there are local jails in all areas of the country bursting at the seams, and forcing residents and officials to decide if jail expansion is necessary. Take Douglas County, Kansas for example, where voters will decide in the coming weeks whether to expand their own jail.
Overreliance on jails is counterproductive, draining scarce resources while failing to promote public safety. Douglas County taxpayers spent well over $50,000 in 2016 to house and care for each inmate in the county facility. Now, the county is poised to expand the facility — in the hopes of relieving overcrowding — but in reality, the expansion will only increase costs, pegged at an additional $163 million, or $8.1 million annually for the next 20 years. And it won’t ever pay for itself: it’s a permanent investment in mass incarceration.
Public support for mass incarceration in recent years has plummeted. As a result, those supporting jail expansions have changed their messaging, suggesting that jails can help treat people struggling with mental illness or substance abuse. But treatment behind bars is both less effective, and about three times more expensive, than community-based treatment. Since most jail stays are short, individuals often leave jail worse off than when they got there, perpetuating the cycle of incarceration.
Experience also shows that building new prisons — or expanding jails — rarely even solves the problem of overcrowding. This is because, simply put, bigger jails incentivize officials to fill them. Texas, for example, was forced to build several new prisons in the 1990s, effectively doubling its prison capacity. Its incarceration rates doubled shortly thereafter, even as the state became less dangerous.
Something similar happened to Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana. There, the parish jail expanded from 150 beds to 650 in 1993 — far more space than needed at the time. Fast forward to 2008, and the jail was once again overcrowded, forcing the parish to build a women’s facility in 2017 to make more room. So too with Grant County in Kentucky. In 2000, the county jail expanded by a factor of 10, from 28 beds to 300. The expansion put the county in debt and led to a dramatic rise in the number of people incarcerated. The increase in people jailed before trial was especially stark. Prior to the expansion, Grant County’s pretrial incarceration rate was 23 percent below the state average; by 2011 it was 78 percent above average.
Douglas County shouldn’t repeat the mistakes we see across the country. Instead, voters can choose a different path and rethink who should go to jail in the first place. They most certainly should expand mental health and addiction treatment services — but should provide them outside of jail. Tying the two together defies national trends and developing best practices. Aside from being the right thing to do, increasing treatment availability will also alleviate jail overcrowding.
Sometimes it takes “No” votes to convince elected officials to stop treating jail as a one-size-fits-all solution, and start taking alternatives to incarceration seriously.
It’s worked before. In Johnson County, Iowa, home of Iowa City, voters rejected two back-to-back referendums, in 2012 and 2013, declining to build a bigger jail despite dire safety warnings from public officials. To fix its overcrowding problem, the county was forced to implement alternative solutions, and the average jail population dropped from 160 to 92 in six years, a success story that shocked county law enforcement. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but Douglas County can find an answer that better fits its individual circumstances.
To be sure, jail overcrowding is a serious problem. But voters should be wary of knee-jerk solutions. That’s the same mindset that made our nation the world’s leading incarcerator, with limited returns or public safety benefits. Other counties and states are leading the way by building a fairer, more effective justice system — and Douglas County can lead here too.
The upcoming jail expansion vote gives Douglas County a critical chance to rethink who we incarcerate and why. Voters should take it.
The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.