MacArthur Foundation pledges $75M toward fixing US jails

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To reduce the number of people locked up in local jails around the U.S., the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced it plans to give $75 million to local jail officials working on ways to remove nonviolent offenders, people too poor to afford bail and the mentally ill from behind bars.

"For too long America has incarcerated too many people unnecessarily, spending too much money without improving public safety," Julia Stasch, president of the Chicago-based foundation, said in a statement Wednesday.

Nearly 12 million people annually pass through the more than 3,000 county lockups and city jails across the country, with close to 731,000 people locked up on any given day, according to a new report on jails also released Wednesday by the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice.

Most are locked up on nonviolent traffic, drug or property charges at an annual cost of about $22.2 billion, the Vera report found, citing federal statistics. Many, especially those suffering from mental illness and drug addiction, are repeatedly admitted to jails for minor offenses and are dubbed "frequent fliers" because there's nowhere else for them to go.

The MacArthur Foundation plans to award $150,000 to up to 20 local jurisdictions — states, cities, tribes and judicial districts — that operate a jail with 50 beds or more and are proposing ways to change how their jails are run. Next year as many as 10 of them will receive $2 million per year to support those plans, officials said.

In New York City, about 40 percent of the roughly 11,000 daily inmates in the nation's second-largest jail system have a mental health diagnosis. In December, Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to spend $130 million over four years to divert many of them to treatment instead of the city's notorious Rikers Island jail complex.

Some other proposed changes include reforming the bail system advocates say unduly punishes poor suspects, working with judges to institute no-jail sentences and improving the supervision of inmates released back into the community.

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