These dramatic increases have resulted in crowded conditions for both prisons and jails. At the end of 2004, state prisons were operating at 99% of their highest capacity and 115% of their lowest capacity estimates (Harrison & Beck, 2005b). When the lowest capacity estimate for each state is used, all but five states exceeded the 90% guideline established by the American Correctional Association. The situation is similar in local jails. At midyear 2004, 94% of jail capacity was occupied (Harrison & Beck, 2005a). The 50 largest jails in the United States hold approximately 31% of the jail population. At midyear 2004, 20 (40%) of these exceeded their capacity, whereas 33 (66%) were more than 90% full (Harrison & Beck, 2005a).
At its broadest level, the dynamics of prison and jail populations are the same. At any given time, the population is a direct function of the number of admissions and the length of stay (see Cushman, 2002; Pretrial Services Resource Center, 2000). Although the effect of the former is immediate and the effect of the latter delayed by the current length of stay, the final result is the same: Any change to either will result in a corresponding change in the overall population. In this sense, the sources of the dramatic increases in prison and jail populations are conceptually the same. A number of authors have identified policy changes that affected one or both of these factors for prison populations (Blumstein, 1995; Tonry, 1990).
The factors that drive admissions and length of stay, however, are quite different for prisons and jails. Much of the prison population is legislatively driven. In any given jurisdiction the type of sentences (determinate– indeterminate), type of release (discretionary–mandatory), length of sentence, extent of credit time, mandatory minimums, sentence enhancements (three strikes), and a host of other factors are largely controlled by the relevant sentencing statutes. As a result, significant reductions in prison populations must rely on statutory changes (or administrative sleight of hand), which are difficult to come by.
Jail populations, on the other hand, are potentially much more amenable to change. Nationally, slightly more than 60% of jail inmates are pretrial detainees (Harrison & Beck, 2005a) who either have been denied bail or do not have the resources to obtain release through bail. Most, but not all, of those individuals serving sentences in jail were convicted of misdemeanor or minor felony offenses. Arrest policies and bail standards are generally estab- lished at the local level by police agencies and the county courts. Similarly, misdemeanor sentences seldom suffer the constraints and mandates of their
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felony counteracts. This leaves the nature of the disposition potentially much more open to negotiations among the interested parties. As a result, local officials can manipulate both the number of admissions and the length of stay through changes in local policies (see Cunniff, 2002; Cushman, 2002; Pretrial Services Resource Center, 2000).
This article reports on one approach by a county to control its local jail population. This jurisdiction focused on a “front door” strategy (Blumstein, 1995) designed to reduce admissions to the county jail system. The executive committee of the local judiciary ordered police agencies to issue a summons to appear rather than arrest individuals accused of seven misdemeanor offenses. At initiation of the policy, it was estimated that this change might reduce admissions to the county jail system by approximately 20% to 25%. If successful, this would have a substantial effect on the local jail population.
Like many others around the United States, the county under study had a long history of litigation concerning the county jail. In 1972, inmates filed suit in federal court seeking relief from the overcrowded condition in the jail. Three years later, in 1975, the judge assigned to the case imposed a cap on the jail population. The county added capacity to the jail on at least three separate occasions, but by 1999 the crowding had backed up to include the county lockup facility. In that year, the population in the county lockup was added to the existing litigation, and later that year the federal court imposed a population cap of 213 on the lockup facility. Two years later, with the mutual assent of the county and the plaintiffs, the cap was raised to 297.
The litigation continued with regular reviews and hearings by the federal court, but the county was doing little to abate the chronic crowding in the facility. In April 2002, the federal judge handling the case held county offi- cials in contempt for their failure to comply with the agreed-on cap of 297 and indicated that financial penalties, and potentially contempt citations, would be imposed for violations of the cap after May 1. The county was now on notice that something must be done to control the population of the county lockup or they would pay the price.
In response to the federal judge’s action, the executive committee of the county court system, noting “its obligation to assist the Sheriff and other county officials in complying with the Federal Court Order and to maintain public safety within our community,” issued a court order on April 18, 2002, designed to help control the population of the county lockup facility.