Analysis shows people in NYC jails would be better served in the community

by Bernadette Rabuy, November 16, 2016

A recent analysis uncovers a counterintuitive finding: the people most frequently incarcerated in New York City jails are also people who would be better served with social services in the community.

A 2015 report by the city’s department of health used health data to examine the 800 people who were most frequently incarcerated in New York City jails from November 2008 through December 2014. The authors found that, in comparison to the rest of the people incarcerated in New York City jails, the frequently incarcerated were:

  • Older
  • More likely to be Non-Hispanic black
  • More likely to be diagnosed as seriously mentally ill
  • More likely to have a history of significant drug and alcohol use
  • More likely to mention homelessness in their full history and physical examination

At the same time, the frequently incarcerated individuals were:

  • More likely than the other people admitted to New York City jails to have low-level offenses. Two-thirds of the frequently incarcerated group was locked up for low-level theft, possession of small quantities of drugs, trespassing, or fare evasion.

During the six-year period, the group had a median of 21 incarcerations with a median length of stay of 11 days in jail. As a result, it cost the city $129 million to lock up and provide health care to just these 800 people.

The report’s findings on the needs of the most frequently incarcerated makes the growing popularity of “mental health jails” troublesome. Instead of recognizing that jail may not be the best solution to mental illness or substance abuse, municipalities are adopting reforms that call jails by other, gentler names without addressing the systemic issues that make jails a particularly tough place for those struggling with mental health and substance abuse.

In California, for example, the public has shown overwhelming support for alternatives to incarceration, yet even still, county legislators and sheriffs have been staunch supporters of new jail construction. At the same time, there is evidence that these county officials recognize the growing movement for reform that’s taking place in California and beyond and, in response, have moved away from the tough-on-crime narrative. Activist and author James Kilgore calls these attempts to repackage jails as social service providers, “carceral humanism.” It explains why Los Angeles County’s proposal for a new women’s jail has sometimes been called a “women’s village” and why San Mateo County is so proud of its “compassionate jail.”

But even brief jail stays can be incredibly disruptive. They separate families, some of whom struggle to keep in touch. And they can lead to a loss of employment for people who already struggle to find gainful employment.

This report shows that America’s use of jails to address mental health and substance abuse is not working. And there are already too many examples of jails failing to provide adequate mental health and substance abuse services. It’s time for our social policies to be more creative and look beyond institutionalized settings like jails.

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