State Policies Affecting Local Jails


A growing number of criminal justice reforms impact how local criminal justice systems operate.

States have funded law enforcement programs that deflect some individuals with behavioral health needs away from formal arrest and booking procedures. Pretrial release reforms have encouraged the use of risk assessments to identify and release low-risk defendants awaiting trial and have developed guidelines for diverting away from jail certain defendants.

Many of the sentencing and corrections reforms designed to lower state prison populations have put in place new expectations on, and sometimes resources for, local corrections systems.

The policy and budgetary decisions made in statehouses can have significant influence on local policy and practice. National efforts are underway to collect data and better understand how local corrections systems can cost-effectively reduce recidivism and protect public safety.

Arrest and Booking

More than half of local jail inmates meet the criteria for a mental health disorder. Yet many of these individuals often are arrested and booked for minor, nonviolent crimes.

State legislatures have been interested in policies aimed at improving initial interactions with the criminal justice system for individuals with behavioral health needs.

States also have started to look for ways to connect people with social services in lieu of initiating the criminal justice process and booking someone into jail. Recent legislation has funded or authorized innovative new pre-booking diversion programs known generally as “deflection.”

Learn more: NCSL’s law enforcement and justice-involved mental health overviews

Pretrial Release

Because two-thirds of those in local jails are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime, state pretrial release policies are an important valve for jail populations. In the last five years every state legislature has addressed pretrial policy, resulting in more than 500 new enactments. An important trend during that time was the adoption of risk-based assessments that can help reduce the pretrial jail population, while enhancing public safety. Vermont, for example, adopted a law that requires courts to conduct risk assessments on most defendants, including those charged with drug offenses and those unable to post bond after 24 hours. The court must then consider the results when determining conditions of release.

Pretrial diversion routes defendants away from jail and traditional criminal justice processing and addresses specific underlying factors that contribute to criminal behavior. Addressed by nearly every state since 2012, diversion laws have concentrated on specialized populations such as military members, those with substance use and addiction needs, and defendants with mental health needs.

Learn more: NCSL’s Pretrial Release resources

Sentencing and Corrections

Legislative policies also have significant impact on the convicted population in jails. This generally includes misdemeants or those serving sentences of less than one year, probation and parole violators and prison inmates awaiting transfer to a state facility. In 2015 when Utah lawmakers lowered many drug possession penalties from felonies to misdemeanors, they also lowered many traffic violations from misdemeanors to non-jailable infractions. The intention was to re-focus jail resources on more serious crime. At least nine states have revisited penalties for drug possession.

Nearly 20 states since 2010 have authorized the use of short jail stays in lieu of revocation to prison for probationers and parolees who break the rules of their supervision. Many of these laws limit the amount of time that can be ordered as a jail sanction. To help offset probation and parole supervision costs, at least nine states have put in place “performance invective funding” mechanisms. These funds reimburse localities for successfully supervising probationers and parolees in the community rather than sending them to prison.

Learn more: NCSL’s Sentencing and Corrections resources

Safety and Justice Challenge

The Safety and Justice Challenge is a national $100 million initiative of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to address the use of local jails. The initiative supports local justice system reforms that address issues of behavioral health, racial and ethnic disparities, pretrial release and supervision, crisis intervention and more.

The Foundation has provided funding and expert technical assistance to 16 counties, three cities and the statewide system in Connecticut to make systematic changes to their local public safety systems.

An additional 20 innovation sites, including the State of Delaware, were recently announced. These localities are receiving assistance to design and test innovative criminal justice reforms.