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Jails - Proposals And Prospects For Jail Reform

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The history of jail reform is replete with resistance to improvement. When John Howard first published his devastating but valid The State of the Prisons in England and Wales in 1777, the modern jail reform movement was born. Howard's purpose was to relieve the wretchedness of the people incarcerated in English jails. Since his time, ideas and knowledge have seldom, if ever, been combined with the resources of the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government in a sustained, adequately funded effort to bring about lasting solutions. Given that piecemeal reforms and political patchwork have only ameliorated but not solved the American jail problem, more systematic solutions are needed that transcend the individual jail and that see it for the central and integral part of the criminal justice system that it is.

Until recently, jails have been the forgotten element in corrections. Unlike prisons, they have managed to escape the glare of public scrutiny. But this is no longer the case. Jail reform is currently taking place along the paths previously identified in the literature (Flynn, pp. 73–85; Frase, pp. 494–502; Mattick, pp. 821–843). Each path varies in comprehensiveness and ranges from procedural changes to dramatic realignments of policies, resources, and practices.

The first mode of systematic jail reform involves relatively simple shifts in administrative procedures and policies. It entails expanding the current use of decriminalization, diversion, reduced penetration into the system, and alternatives to incarceration. This approach, coupled with screening out of low-risk, less serious offenders at the pretrial stage and the sentencing of minor offenders to such noninstitutional alternatives as fines, misdemeanant probation and parole, electronic monitoring, day reporting, and community service, is one of the more significant and positive developments in local corrections.

A second mode of jail reform builds upon the first path and looks upon the jail as the focal point of a community rather than as a remote and isolated institution. This view is based on the recognition that jails, for better or for worse, receive, process, treat, impact, and release hundreds of thousands of citizens including drug abusers, alcoholics, the mentally ill, the homeless, and the physically ill (Wallenstein). Jails must deal with a wide range of public health problems, ranging from persons infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), those with AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), sexually transmitted diseases, and various forms of hepatitis and tuberculosis. One of the unintended consequences of deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill has been their "diversion" from mental health facilities straight into jails. Jails are receiving a growing number of persons with multiple physical and mental disorders. Recognizing that jails were never meant to function as public hospitals or mental health treatment centers, jail reformers take the position that interactive linkages must be built between the jails and existing service agencies in the community. But linkages are more than just referrals or recommendations. They are true collaborations with sister service agencies and include information sharing from the time detainees or offenders arrive at the jail until they depart. To function properly, the services delivery should be seamless (Wallenstein).

The third mode of jail reform is by far the most dramatic in that it advocates the elimination of local control of detention and correctional functions and seeks to abolish the jail in its present form. This view encourages the development of regional or community based correctional centers as part of an integrated correctional system under regional or state control. At this point, there are many multi-jurisdictional corrections facilities in existence across the country (National Institute of Corrections, 1991). Six states and Washington, D.C., have assumed responsibility for pretrial detention. In addition, some state, regional, and local jurisdictions have replaced their jails with intake (or court) service centers to provide short-term intake screening, diversion of lesser offenders, pretrial and presentence investigations, and coordination of in-house and community-based services and referrals.

The last decade of the twentieth century finally brought forth multiple and varied efforts at jail reform. At this point, it is too early to predict success, given the fierce resistance to reform experienced since the inception of the jail. Nonetheless, there is agreement among scholars and practitioners alike that change must come and that alternative ways must be found to bring relief to the mass of humanity passing through jail doors.

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