Grant to help reduce Milwaukee County jail population, reform system

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded a $2 million grant to Milwaukee County to implement reforms aimed at reducing the jail population and addressing racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system.

Eleven jurisdictions in the United States are receiving foundation money and technical assistance over the next two years.

The Milwaukee County grant is part of the Safety and Justice Challenge, a national initiative to reduce over-incarceration.

“The way we misuse and over-use jails in this country takes an enormous toll on our social fabric and undermines the credibility of government action, with particularly dire consequences for communities of color,” Julia Stasch, MacArthur Foundation president, said in a news release. “The thoughtful plans and demonstrable political will give us confidence that these jurisdictions will show that change is possible in even the most intractable justice-related challenges in cities, counties, and states across the country.”

The foundation said the county will address the main drivers of its jail population — which include people with mental health and substance abuse, and others accused of non-violent misdemeanor offenses — with the goal of reducing the average daily jail population by 18 percent over two years.

The county plan focuses on expanding the book and release program for low-level non-violent misdemeanor offenses and diverting individuals with mental health or substance abuse issues to alternatives to jail that will help prevent them from cycling in and out of the system.

The county also will institute a new post-booking stabilization program for individuals suffering from mental health or substance abuse issues that will remove them from jail within 48 hours and connect them with appropriate services.

Additionally, the county will provide additional resources and training for law enforcement.

“We are extremely grateful and honored to have received this award and opportunity from the MacArthur Foundation,” Chief Judge Maxine White said in a news release. “With their help and our efforts, we can better protect public safety by smart use of our jails and working with issues of mental illness and substance abuse in a more systematic and effective way. This opportunity allows Milwaukee County to continue as a leader in criminal justice reform.”

In the United States, jail populations have more than tripled since the 1980s, as have the cumulative costs of building and running them.

Nationwide misuse of jails most harshly impacts low-income communities and communities of color.

And today, one in three Americans believes his or her local justice system is unfair, according to a poll conducted by Zogby Analytics and supported by the Foundation.

On the Web

More information about the Safety and Justice Challenge is at www.safetyandjusticechallenge.org.