Not long ago, a great story “Do we have the right people locked up?” from the Chicago Reader came across my Twitter feed. As a historian writing the recent history of Cook County Jail, I was disappointed to see that Cook County politicians are still hashing through the same questions they were dealing with forty years ago. The piece is worth reading on its own merits, but I particularly loved the graphic that illustrated the piece, part of which I screenshotted:
I took for granted that this genre of blame story was a Cook County thing. However, when my brother texted me this story from my hometown newspaper, the Tacoma News Tribune, “Tacoma’s shift away from jail brings hard time to Pierce County,” it occurred to me that the “who’s to blame” story is a common trope of jail reporting and editorials nationwide. Indeed, Googling “who is to blame for jail problems?” brought up a host of stories from the last month or two, from less populated areas in Alabama, Arkansas, and East Tennessee, to metropolitan areas such as Akron, Portland, ME, Spokane, WA, New Orleans, St. Louis, and Los Angeles, to name a few.
Some of the actors and factors to blame:
-prescription drug arrests
-unstable funding from states
– low staffing levels
-systemic problems surrounding parole boards
-rival jails siphoning off inmates
-debt payments on jails
These are not new problems, and all of them, I think, point to the problem that county jails sit at the nexus of multi-jurisdictional crime control efforts that involve too many stakeholders and too little accountability. For much of the twentieth century, counties tolerated jail problems as the status quo. It the 1960s, counties began to turn to states and the federal government for guidance and funding, or were forced to make changes by state jail inspectors and judicial intervention. The outcome of these shifts was that counties had to expand jail facilities beyond their governing capacities in order to keep jails in scale with the rest of the expanding criminal justice system. Few counties in the country can actually afford to operate their jails to meet current demands of policing; few counties have the expertise to manage large jail populations or to make sound long-term jail policy. The lessons of the past thirty years are clear: too many counties have used construction as a substitute for reforms to bail and bonds, policing, mental health, drug rehabilitation, education, job programs, and community corrections. Small time politicos can point fingers all they want, but change won’t come until counties shift their focus away from who’s to blame for problems in jail to meaningful and far-reaching reform and expansion of the services counties provide to citizens.