sjclogo-1200x442Amid growing national attention to the number of Americans confined in state and federal prisons, significantly less attention has been paid to the local level, where the criminal justice system primarily operates and where over-incarceration begins. Jail populations have more than tripled since the 1980s, as have the cumulative costs of building and running them. Furthermore, the nation’s misuse of jails disproportionately impacts low-income communities and communities of color. While African Americans and Latinos make up 30 percent of Americans, they make up 51 percent of the U.S. jail population.

In response to this crisis, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation launched the Safety and Justice Challenge, a $75 million initiative to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails. In 2015, the Foundation awarded 20 jurisdictions $150,000 grants and expert counsel to create plans that will lead to fairer, more effective local justice systems. From this group, in 2016 10 were selected as core sites to receive a second round of funding—between $1.5 and $3.5 million—to implement their plans for reform. The remaining 10 receive ongoing financial and technical support as partner sites, with the goal of positioning them to receive implementation funding in 2017:

Core Sites Partner Sites
 Charleston County, SC  Ada County, ID
 Harris County, TX  Cook County, IL
 Lucas County, OH  Los Angeles County, CA
 Milwaukee County, WI  Mecklenburg County, NC
 New Orleans, LA  Mesa County, CO
 Philadelphia, PA  Multnomah County, OR
  Pima County, AZ  New York City, NY
 Spokane County, WA  Palm Beach County, FL
 State of Connecticut  Pennington County, ND
 St. Louis County, MO  Shelby County, TN


The sites have set ambitious goals for lowering their jail populations, ranging from 15 percent to 34 percent. Many are launching initiatives to address the disproportionate impact of jail misuse and overuse on people too poor to post bail, as well as on people with mental health or substance abuse issues. The jurisdictions’ plans employ an expansive array of local solutions, such as diversion programs, which can steer people out of the criminal justice system who are not a threat to public safety; implicit bias training for police and other system practitioners, probation officers, prosecutors, and judges; and expanded community-based treatment options. Their diversity of sizes, geographies, demographics, and challenges will produce a variety of creative approaches and models for reform that jurisdictions across the country can adopt.

The Institute for State and Local Governance is one of several organizations providing technical assistance and counsel to the 20 jurisdictions as they plan and implement reforms; other organizations include the Center for Court Innovation, the Justice Management Institute, Justice System Partners, the Pretrial Justice Institute, and the Vera Institute of Justice. Our primary role is to monitor the performance of participating sites. Specifically, using local criminal justice data, we are working to create and track for each site performance measures related to the broad goals and objectives of the initiative—reducing jail populations and disparities in those populations—and specific strategies implemented to achieve those goals and objectives, with the overarching goal of demonstrating progress toward targets over time and helping sites make adjustments in practices as needed. To accommodate the measurement of strategies across the criminal justice system, we have created a comprehensive performance measurement framework that includes indicators at key decision points ranging from arrest to post-disposition community supervision.

In addition to overseeing performance measurement, ISLG serves as the data liaison for the initiative, collecting and managing local data for all 20 sites in support of the Challenge’s broader research and evaluation agenda and developing and executing data use agreements to facilitate the use of the data for performance measurement and other research and analysis.

MacArthur created the Safety and Justice Challenge competition to support jurisdictions across the country seeking to build more just and effective local justice systems that improve public safety, save taxpayer money, and yield fairer outcomes. In an effort to build a broad network of jurisdictions across the country that are engaged in local justice reform, the Foundation plans to create new opportunities—open to jurisdictions across the country—for funding to support training, technical assistance, and promising local innovations that seek to reduce the misuse and overuse of jails.

For more information about this project, contact