Bob Thompson – Jail Alternatives and Reducing Incarceration Rates

In the video below, Bob Thompson presents a long list of incarceration reduction initiatives that save money and reduce recidivism. This presentation was given at the event “Alternatives to a Bigger Jail: A Public Forum” on Tuesday, April 23, 7:30pm Hotel Vetro, Plaza Room in Iowa City.

“We Have Found the Enemy, and They Are Us” – Finding Cures for Racist Outcomes in the 21st Century

20130430tu-joseph-hazelwood-exxon-valdez-alaskan-oil-spill-alaska-greenpeace-advertisementIn the days following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Greenpeace came out with an unusual advertising campaign about the spill.

Their ad featured a picture of Joseph Hazelwood, the man who had been navigating the ship when it crashed.

The caption read, “It wasn’t his driving that caused the Alaskan oil spill. It was yours.”

It was a transcendent moment of silence for many activists at that time, including me:

“Greenpeace is my ally. I’m a supporter. How could they be blaming me for an Alaskan oil spill thousands of miles away?”

For an initial brief moment, I was perplexed and offended by their ad. Of course, I and others quickly realized the genius of what they were proposing.

A transcendence and mind-shift took place among many activists who realized, there really is no “Us” and “Them.” There’s just “Us” all of us together as one. Whatever solutions may be out there, they can’t simply involve “us” protesting “them.” The answers must be found in collaborative solutions that everyone can be a part of and support.

In the new era of transcendent activism, protests gave way to those offering solutions.

One example of many is Jake Harriman who served over seven years as a platoon commander in both the Infantry and an elite unit of Marines called Force Recon. Jake decided he wanted to get serious about fighting terrorism, so he formed a non-profit organization called Nuru to fight extreme poverty which Jake believes is the cause of terrorism. [source]

Today we face a problem of monumental racist outcomes that are most glaringly apparent in the justice system in the United States where an incarceration crisis has resulted in the U.S. having the world’s highest rate of incarceration, and among those incarcerated “African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners.”[1, 2, 3]

The natural inclination is to blame the police, or judges, or someone else. “Blame anyone but us!,” seems to be the rally cry.

The racist outcomes we see in the justice system today are really just symptoms of problems that exist far upstream from the criminal justice system.

“It’s highly unlikely that there is a nation-wide conspiracy to disproportionately arrest people of color and treat them unfairly. What’s more plausible is that we’ve created (or permitted) a racially biased and unfair social, economic, and political structure where people of color are discriminated against at foundational levels of education, employment, and opportunity — then, we act surprised when some of these disenfranchised, marginalized, and oppressed people grow up, break some laws, and get arrested. Anyone coming from a difficult background, with limited means, is going to have less access to legal services, outside support, and bail money. This will, of course, make their situation worse.”  ~ Greg Johnson [source]

When people are denied quality education and then denied employment and other opportunities, this creates an understandable sense of ostracism, oppression, desperation and hopelessness. When people grow up immersed in a context of poverty, without an abundance of successful roll models, and only examples of others who’ve found it difficult to rise above these circumstances, then those growing up in such circumstances begin to have little hope of anything different in their own life. It’s not surprising that people turn to drugs to find both an escape and source of revenue.

The following commentary is from Bob Thompson, a jail alternatives advocate:

“I like Neff’s terminology ‘racist outcomes’ better than ‘institutional racism.’ I can’t find any evidence of deliberate racist intent in policing or prosecution. Of course I can’t follow everyone in the criminal justice system around all day or peer into their minds, but it appears to be circumstantial. There’s more crime in a particular area, so there’s more policing, which leads to police finding more people breaking the law in that particular area. As for what happens after arrest, I had an exchange with an attorney on the CJCC at the forum about that. The most likely explanation for disproportionate pretrial release of Blacks is simply that they statistically lack resources to make bail. As for delays in Blacks’ cases moving through the system, that gets more complex, but Lyness has looked into the underlying causes, and those appear circumstantial as well. The problem is that there’s no alternative to having money to stay out of jail. And the correlation between criminogenic tendencies and poverty is obvious, and not contingent on race at all. If there’s anyone to blame, it’s all of us.” ~ Bob Thompson [4, 5]

For these reasons, it is even more imperative to provide alternatives to arrest and incarceration. It’s also important to limit the rapid population flow into incarceration institutions because of the connection between incarceration and recidivism that has been identified in studies like “Is Prison Increasing Crime?” – a 60-page report by Martin H. Pritikin published in the Wisconsin Law Review. [PDF]

Solutions to racist outcomes will be found at every level where we can offer education, employment and opportunities for people who might otherwise not have them.



  1. The term racist outcomes was most recently popularized by John Neff of
  2. The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. [source]
  3. The statistic regarding racial disparity is from the NAACP. [source]
  4. “Neff’s terminology” refers to John Neff and his research website
  5. Lyness refers to Janet Lyness the County Attorney for Johnson County, Iowa.

“Stabilizing Jail Population Growth in Johnson County Iowa” by Bob Thompson

[Source: The following article is submitted by Bob Thompson and addresses viable initiatives and proposals to stabilize or reduce jail population growth in Johnson County, Iowa.]

* * *


“In Iowa, the courts operate at the same staffing level as in 1986, but with a 60% increase in workload… Underfunding has also meant that there is less staff and less time for staff to devote to the cases in the system. Too often, the legal system is not doing its job in the way it should be done. For a justice system, this is unacceptable.” –The Hon. Mark Cady, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Iowa

The county’s population grew about 30% between 1980 and 2000. Meanwhile, the jail bookings increased 450% between 1982 and 1998; the criminal caseload increased by 405% (1982-1998); and the average daily jail population increased by 370% (1982-1999). –CSG Consultants to Neumann Monson PC, 1999

From 1999 to 2008, reported crime in Johnson County has grown by 11%. During the same interval, violent crime decreased by 9%. –RecordsPedia, Johnson County Crime Statistics

“Between 1998 and 2012 the average jail intake rate was essentially constant at 17 per day and under those circumstances the average population should have stayed constant at about 79. Instead it increased from 79 to 156 because the average length of stay for inmates held longer than a week increased from two weeks in 1998 to between five and six weeks in 2011 and 2012.” –UI Professor Emeritus John Neff, Press-Citizen, Mar. 31 2013

Jail population growth has greatly outpaced County population growth. There has been no significant increase in the rate of serious crime. Since most of the increase in criminal caseloads is for misdemeanor offenses, this may be a major factor in the increase in case processing times that is causing the increase in length of stay, hence the increase in jail population. John Neff recently completed a study entitled “What if we capped length of stay?” “Capping length of stay (for misdemeanors at eight weeks and felonies at twenty six weeks) has the potential of reducing jail bed usage by 49 beds and incarceration cost by $1.3 million.”

There are three ways to speed up case processing times: Reduce the number of charges filed, increase court efficiency, or increase court staff. Funding levels to the Judicial Branch and the Public Defenders should be greatly increased by the Iowa legislature. Additionally, alternatives to incarceration, both for sentenced and pretrial offenders, should be used as much as possible.

Increasing space for the Court without increasing State funding for staff cannot solve this problem. With current funding levels, we can at best place one additional judge in Johnson County. What about Clerk of Court staff? Public Defenders’ office? Department of Correctional Services? Either caseloads need to decrease, or staff levels need to catch up.


The County states that ” jail alternatives have a cost and cannot be seen as a means of reducing jail operating expenses.” Yet some of their programs have resulted in substantial cost savings. Source: Jail Alternatives: Prevention, Diversion, Expediting, and Recidivism Reduction Efforts, April 2013

1. Mental health screening and diversion

The Johnson County Jail Alternatives Program is a mental health jail diversion program that provides services to individuals with mental health and co-occurring disorders who come into contact with the criminal justice system. Service provision includes screening, assessment, referral and linkage to treatment services as well as risk assessment, crisis intervention, support counseling, and short-term case monitoring. As of January 1, 2013, the Johnson County Jail Alternatives Program has served a total of 1038 unduplicated individuals since implementation in July 2005. On average, the Jail Alternatives Programs serves approximately 210 individuals per fiscal year. Jail Alternatives compares the number of jail bed dates one year prior to participation in the program and one year post. Based on those who meet the timeframe criteria, there has been a potential savings of 23,829 jail bed dates. At an estimated daily rate of $71 this translates to a potential cost savings of $1,691,859. (average reduction of 8.1 occupied jail beds.)

2. Weekly review of inmates to identify who can be released/case expediting

Beginning in the fall of 2011, staff from the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, the Johnson County Attorney’s Office, Jail Alternatives Program, and the Johnson County State Public Defender’s Office meet regularly to review all inmates in the jail who could be released safely prior to their next proceeding. This has led to individuals being release prior to their trial or probation revocation hearing. The impact of this intervention is reflected in the average daily inmate population. In FY 11 the average daily population was 162.4 and in FY12 that was reduced to 156.3. That is an average of 6.1 fewer inmates in custody per day which translates to 2,226.5 fewer bed dates and a cost savings of $158,081.50 (6.1 inmates x 365 days x $71 per day).

3. Substance Abuse Evaluations and Treatment 

Johnson County contracts with MECCA to provide substance abuse evaluations for indigent defendants who are required by law to obtain a substance abuse evaluation.   MECCA staff is present at the jail seven days a week to conduct substance abuse evaluations.  Those arrested for OWI and those with multiple charges related to substance use are typically seen.  The goal of the service is to reduce the length of time inmates are in jail and reduce the number of individuals who may later be found in contempt of court for failing to follow through with an evaluation following discharge from the jail.  In fiscal year 2012, 342 evaluations were completed allowing these inmates to be discharged without delay.  Of those evaluations, 54% were recommended for additional services.

4. Drug Treatment Court

The Johnson County Drug Treatment Court held the first hearings in February 2008.
This program is designed for individuals who have a substance use disorder, and/or a substance use disorder and co-occurring mental health disorder, and are facing a prison sentence if Drug Court were not an option.  The program includes intensive treatment, intensive supervision, and weekly contact with the judge and Drug Treatment Court team and requires a minimum of 18 months.  This timeframe is important to consider when reviewing the number of participants who have completed the program.

Since beginning on February 23, 2008, in Johnson County:  73 people accepted; 14 people successfully completed probation; 21 still enrolled. The total days of supervision provided in the community for people who would have been in prison otherwise equals 33,480.  Had those individuals been sentenced to prison, the cost to the state would have been $2,890,998 ($86.35 per day).  Instead the cost on supervision was $121,867 ($3.64 per day).  This translates to a savings of $2,769,131.  It is difficult to quantify the impact Drug Treatment Court will have on county jail.  Overall, it should have a positive impact on the jail population by delaying or reducing recidivism long term.

5. Marijuana Diversion Program

The County Attorney’s Office implemented a marijuana diversion program in July 2010. The diversion programs provide a “once only” opportunity for first time offenders to attend a treatment/educational program instead of paying a fine and/or jail time.  In the Marijuana Diversion Program, 300 people have enrolled since the program began on July 1, 2010.  Through July 2012 , 212 people successfully completed the program, 5 were still actively participating in the program, and 83 had been unsuccessfully discharged from the program.

6. Releasing Inmates Prior to Initial Appearance

Jail staff and law enforcement have the discretion to “sign out” individuals to return to the community after they have been charged with an offense so that these individuals do not remain in custody while awaiting their Initial Appearance and pending court hearings.
A. In calendar year 2012, jail staff signed out 239 out of 5,124 (4.7%) individuals after they were booked into the jail.
B. University of Iowa Police Department signed out 97 individuals.
C. Iowa City Police Department “charged and released” in response to 1241 calls for service. *note this may translate to more than 1241 being charged and released as one call for service could have 6 individuals charged and released

7. Discretionary Reward/Incentive Program for Inmates

This is administered by the Sheriff and Jail Administrator.  “Good time” for inmates currently varies from 0% to 20%.  This decreases up to six days off each thirty days of a sentence for an inmate with good behavior.  It provides an incentive for inmates to comply with jail rules and decreases the number of days defendants spend in jail.

 8. Driving Under Suspension Court

The “Rocket Docket” court allows defendants facing simple misdemeanor Driving Under Suspension (DUS) charges to pay past due fines and other financial obligations in order to get a valid driver’s license in exchange for having their DUS charge dismissed.  The focus of the program is to help defendants understand and comply with financial obligations to the state in order to avoid further penalties for non-compliance, which may result in additional days in jail.  In 2012, 830 cases were scheduled and 74% appeared for the hearing.

9. Expedited Filing of the Report of Violation for Probation Violations

The probation revocation request and report are being delivered to the County Attorney’s office within 24 hours after a Preliminary Probation Violation Information is filed.

10. Electronic Home Arrest/Work Release

Work Release allows an inmate to be released from the jail to go to their job then return to the work for all other hours of the day.  The Johnson County Sheriff authorized 135 applications for work/school release from jail during calendar year 2012.  The Sheriff also approved 3 Home Monitoring applications saving 113 bed days and housing costs.


Electronic Monitoring

The County acknowledges that Electronic Monitoring (EM) is so seldom used because of the costs imposed on the offenders. What they do not say is that the supervisors set the cost: they currently charge offenders $20/day, when the private company providing the service charges the County only $10. Their insistence upon doubling their money has effectively killed its use; aside from work release, only 3 applications were approved in FY 2012. They should instead be subsidizing EM for indigents to make it an equitable, viable alternative; this was suggested by former County Attorney Pat White over a decade ago, specifically as an option for sentencing. EM should be used as much as possible as an alternative to pretrial incarceration. The Iowa Supreme Court recently ruled that one day on EM counts the same as one day in jail; previously, the County’s policy was that two days on EM counted as one day in jail. Before the jail vote in 2000 there were about 20 people on EM at any given time. After the jail was defeated, that program somehow evaporated, and there were 20 people per day in Linn County instead.

County funding for Department of Correctional Services (DCS) to provide an Intensive Supervision/Pretrial Release Program

On August 30, 2001, DCS staff presented a proposal to the Board of Supervisors for such a program. The program would provide needed services for offenders while keeping them out of jail, at a significant cost savings. Offenders would receive counseling, substance abuse treatment, mental health services, help with job and educational opportunities, etc. Compliance to the rules would be achieved with electronic monitoring, drug testing, frequent visits by DCS staff, and possibly a day reporting program. Offenders who otherwise could not get out of jail pending resolution of their cases would receive the necessary assistance for their rehabilitation, while not taking up jail beds, at a significant cost savings to the county.

In 2001, DCS estimated that an intensive pretrial supervision program could reduce jail population by 15-20 beds on average, with a cost of $30-40 per offender per day, less than the current cost to warehouse overflow inmates in Muscatine. A County funded DCS unit could also attend to other alternative programs, providing various levels of supervision, depending on need; for example, a day reporting program, supervised community service, and coordination of volunteers to supervise community service projects, provide classes, mentoring, etc.

Day Reporting Program

Such a program would assist offenders with their rehabilitation, by providing educational activities and augmentation of treatment programs. It could be facilitated in conjunction with Intensive Pretrial Supervision, a Volunteer Program, and/or used as a sentencing option. Keeping offenders busy with constructive, educational/rehabilitative activities is an essential element in assisting them with the task of becoming productive and self-sufficient. If appropriately integrated into other programs, this would be a valuable tool for rehabilitating inmates.

Supervised (intensive) community service program

Community service is a more constructive sentencing option than serving time in jail. However, some offenders do not perform well in unsupervised community service settings. The DCS could provide supervision for community service projects around the county for offenders deemed unsuitable for unsupervised community service. Such programs are supervised by Americorp volunteers. If this option were available to judges, fewer people would serve their sentences in jail. In addition, judges should be encouraged to use community service options in lieu of fines whenever possible; this would in turn reduce the number of offenders jailed for contempt, since most contempt cases are for nonpayment of fines. Fining poor and indigent offenders is a poor choice, when other options are available.

Jail Alternatives as a Remedy for Disproportionate Minority Incarceration

Alternatives to incarceration may be the most effective, immediate way to alleviate racial disparity in the jail; a primary reason that black people are incarcerated disproportionately to whites is that they have disproportionately low income, and more frequently lack the financial means to make bail.

The Johnson County Jail Space and Services Task Force discussed disproportionate minority incarceration in the juvenile and adult criminal justice system over a decade ago. Their recommendations were ignored, and the issue was swept under the rug.

Public Defender John Robertson wrote on this issue, in the Task Force report (appendix):

“The Task Force recommends that the Board of Supervisors fund a study of jail and sentencing rates for people of color, designed to determine if jail and sentencing patterns discriminate against people of color; if such discrimination occurs, the County should immediately implement policy and procedures designed to eliminate such discrimination. There is concern that at least some part of the present overcrowding issues are related to race; if true, such practices may be illegal and certainly do not comport with community values; likewise, if true, such practices add to overcrowding pressures in the jail.”

Ten years later, only after perceiving that disproportionate minority incarceration was one of the reasons they lost the Justice Center vote in November, they are finally talking about developing a “racial equity impact assessment tool.” Johnson County is now on the small list of intervention sites of the Iowa Department of Human Rights Office of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning, mostly because of the extremely disproportionate incarceration of black children.


Alcohol/drug diversion from arrest

The County recently terminated its Alcohol Diversion program, which was a way to avoid prosecution for public intoxication. We should have a facility set up as an alternative to jail for intoxicated subjects. The Emergency Treatment Center of UI hospitals applied for a grant for such a facility in 2010. I asked about the status of that proposal, but no answer was given. Lt. Kevin Bell of the jail unit thought such a program would be used heavily. The idea of starting a “detox center” as an alternative to arrest received considerable attention more than a decade ago. We need more diversions and policy changes to reduce the high volume of misdemeanor cases, in order to reduce caseloads.

Summonses instead of arrest warrants

Use summonses rather than arrest warrants for Failure To Appear in court and other charges, when appropriate.
Offenders who fail to appear at their court hearings usually aren’t trying to avoid prosecution, they are merely irresponsible, or in some cases have not been informed of the court date by their attorneys. Warrants are issued for some other types of offenses in which the subject is not a threat to the community (e.g., failure to pay traffic fines). This wastes police, jail and court system resources, and is unnecessarily harsh in many cases.

Mediation/restitution/reconciliation program

Use the DCS victim/offender mediation/restitution/reconciliation program as a diversion from filing charges in appropriate cases. In addition, make this available for use in sentencing orders, if the victim consents.

Citation rather than arrest

Johnson County law enforcement agencies can increase the issuance of citations to non-assaultive simple misdemeanants who list an Iowa residence.

Officer discretion

Officer discretion can be highly effective in keeping people out of the system; not every arrestable offense needs to be prosecuted in order to get the desired result.


The County Attorney should review cases of arrestees prior to their initial appearance whenever feasible, with a representative of the arresting agency, if possible; particularly in cases where the defendant is unlikely to be released on recognizance. If police reports are made available prior to (or soon after) initial appearance, charging decisions can be made immediately in many cases. In some cases, charges could be dismissed or reduced by the time of the initial appearance. This in turn would affect the judge’s decision regarding terms of release, result in more efficient expediting of cases, and consequently reduce the demand on the jail.

Increase the use of surety bonds or 10% to the clerk of court. The trend in recent years toward high cash-only bonds has been a significant factor in jail crowding.

Increase the use of plea bargaining earlier in the case; e.g., prosecutor attaches a meaningful written offer to defense with the trial information, or plea bargaining at arraignment, rather than at the pretrial conference months later. Judges should guarantee a minimum sentence with a guilty plea.

Fast-track cases of pretrial detainees, especially probationers with new charges, to reduce overcrowding. With limited jail space, cases need to be prioritized according to the resources they are using. There is nothing gained by lengthy pretrial incarceration, as pretrial detention is not to be confused with a sentence imposed upon conviction or an ultimate solution, but is rather a means of protecting the public and/or ensuring appearance in court until the case is resolved.

Enhance fewer crimes to 2nd and 3rd offense for certain minor offenses (e.g., public intox, drug possession, domestic assault, etc.).

Follow-up on unverified pretrial interviews when defendants are held and report back to the court when recommending release from jail. DCS tried this for three months in 2001; this resulted in an increase in the pretrial supervision caseload from 60 to 82. Though this was apparently more work than DCS staff had time for, a DCS staff increase funded by the County (see intensive pretrial supervision program, above) could make this a more feasible option (?) if the agreement incorporated a provision for an increase in conventional pretrial supervision.

Prioritize pre-sentence investigations on inmates. Expediting cases for incarcerated individuals whenever possible is an effective means of reducing the jail population.

Facility alteration

With a full array of jail alternatives, the current jail will face a shortage of maximum security beds, as those classified as maximum security inmates are the least likely to be released to an alternative program. Therefore there would need to be a Conversion of a medium security cellblock to maximum security. Even with the implementation of most of the jail population reduction strategies proposed here, a shortage of maximum security beds will remain the most critical problem facing the jail. With the implementation of these strategies, the populations most likely reduced will be those inmates classified as medium or minimum security; maximum security inmates are less likely to be approved for release. If a medium security cellblock (8 or 16 beds) were converted to maximum security, this problem would be alleviated; more than one medium security cellblock could be converted, if demand were sufficient and other conditions appropriate. The state Jail Inspector has affirmed that this could be done without losing double bunking.

Expand community support

DCS coordinates community organizations seeking to get involved in offenders’ lives; for example, Americorp volunteers supervise Hope House inmates on community service projects. There cannot be too much of this, because the lack of constructive community support and involvement is a major contributor to ongoing criminal tendencies. An expansion of such volunteer activities would benefit offenders greatly, who are often stigmatized to the extent that they feel they are not part of the community.

Informally supervised group homes for indigent offenders might be an effective way to reduce recidivism. For example, “wet houses,” residential facilities for homeless alcoholics, have been shown to be very cost effective, substantially reducing the burden on the criminal justice system and emergency medical facilities. One study “showed total cost rate reduction of 53% for housed participants relative to wait-list controls.” –Health Care and Public Service Use and Costs Before and After Provision of Housing for Chronically Homeless Persons With Severe Alcohol Problems, Larimer et al, 2009

Jeff Cox: Yes We Can….Control Local Arrest Rates. The War on Drugs and Racial Disparities

Below is a video presentation by Jeff Cox recorded 23 April 2013 at Alternatives to a Bigger Jail: A Public Forum.

Similarities Between Jail Alternatives and Alternative Medicine


Jail Alternatives and Diversion programs are inexpensive solutions that can help reduce incarceration and recidivism at lower costs compared to standard incarceration approaches. Having a diversity of programs to choose from makes it possible to have a custom package designed for each inmate. Custom tailored personalized planning ensures maximum results.

A similar approach is taken in alternative medicine. Depending on a person’s specific wellness needs, a plan is developed. This customization results in optimal effectiveness.

With alternative medicine and incarceration reduction programs, a holistic approach considers ways to prevent problems before they occur.

The reason that traditional incarceration approaches are used so heavily is because the one-size-fits all approach to throwing people in a jail cell requires little assessment of the inmate’s personal circumstances or needs. Similarly, in western medicine, broad solutions are provided rather than personalized ones. Little emphasis is placed on preventing problems and there is little if any monetary incentive on the part of institutions to reduce the demand for their services.

For example, a person who is pre-diabetic can follow a list of personalized dietary instructions and exercise guidelines to reduce or eliminate their chances of getting diabetes. If they follow the instructions, they can avoid further problems. However, what if they don’t follow the guidelines? Perhaps it’s better to give people a pill instead of a list of instructions. Similarly with high blood pressure, there are things people can do to prevent it. However, much of the time medicine is given instead because it’s a one-size-fits-all solution.

So, a potential challenge with holistic attempts to prevent illness or incarceration is that multifaceted approaches may require consistent commitment on the part of the patient/inmate.

Ultimately, personalized approaches are a good choice that empower each person to have greater control over their life.

Causes of Rising Arrest Rates


A primary concern among those working to lower incarceration rates is the extent that arrest rates seem to be rising even when crime rates should be expected to be stable. Understanding causes of arrest rates can help in working to reduce them.

The following is an excerpt from an anti-jail flyer and it helps illustrate the general public understanding of why arrest rates increase.[1]

Surging arrest rates – Our growing incarceration rate is in part a result of the growth in arrest rates. Arrest rates are in part discretionary, i.e. a result of policy decisions by the police departments about where to concentrate resources. These can be reversed.

  • Between 2007 and 2011 the number of drug arrests by the Iowa City Police doubled, from 332 to 626. The reason for this “surge” in the War on Drugs, according to Iowa City Police Lt. Doug Hart, “could be as simple as the fact that we have more officers working in the streets.”
  • From 2011 to 2012, the number of arrests by the University of Iowa Police went from 1792 to 2018, a 13% increase in one year alone. The UI Police either charged or arrested more people than the total number of people charged or arrested by the police departments of Iowa State and the University of Northern Iowa combined.[2]
  • In 2012, 1097 individuals were booked into the jail on drug offenses, a 40% increase since 2007. Marijuana is the most popular substance in drug charges locally.

The above statements would suggest that the surge in arrests is entirely due to larger numbers of police and more intensive policing practices. However, it’s reasonable to conclude that, unexpected increases in crime or drug use could produce unexpected increases in arrest rates. People aren’t arrested for no reason. Additionally, many 911 calls that result in an arrest originated from a citizen, and are not police initiated.

Here is a more comprehensive list of why arrest rates may up. Some of these would result in increased arrest rates even when crime is down:

  • More calls to 911 requesting a police officer respond to illegal or suspicious activity.
  • A lowered tolerance for criminal activity and drug production/sales/use resulting in more funding for law enforcement.
  • Greater numbers of police for a community.
  • More proactive methods of policing.
  • Law enforcement officers stopping people for seemingly insignificant violations (such as not signaling for a turn) following a crime in an effort to possibly find a suspect.
  • Newer technologies allowing police to be more effective and successful.
  • Programs like CrimeStoppers engaging more citizens in apprehending suspects.
  • Community-wide alerts that allow more citizens to be engaged in apprehending suspects.

It’s true that the presence of active, engaged, attentive, well-funded, and hard-working law enforcement officers (in higher numbers) can results in higher arrest rates, but other factors are present as well.

The most effective way to reducing arrests is to explore ways of reducing crime.



  1. The excerpt above is from the No New Jail group in Johnson County, Iowa.
  2. Comparisons to other communities aren’t as meaningful if we don’t know the population of those communities and crime rates. A larger community with greater law enforcement concerns will likely have more arrests than a smaller community.

Blaming Police for Racial Disparity Will Have Minimal Impact on Finding and Implementing Changes


Just about everyone agrees that it’s imperative we find solutions to problems of racial disparity among those incarcerated. Over 45% of those incarcerated are people of color although they only represent about 25% of the U.S. population (see more details below).

Police as Headwaters of Racism. Because of racial disparity in arrests and incarceration, there’s a perception that a majority of police officers must be going around and intentionally arresting people of color, and that is how we ended up with such a high percentage of people of color incarcerated. An aspect of this theory that is flawed are the high number of 911 calls where officers are dispatched and not initiating the contact but responding to a public request. It’s easy to blame police, but if one does, they will never find the causes and solutions that actually exist elsewhere.

Public Perception and Selective Social Media. Something that’s influenced public perception of law enforcement is YouTube, blogs, and independent media. Let’s say police officers nation-wide are engaged in a million incidents per year. Let’s say 900,000 incidents are fairly routine and just enforcing basic laws. Then there’s another 99,900 that were opportunities to help people, save lives, and go above the call of duty. Let’s say the remaining 100 incidents per year were problematic — perhaps an officer, in a tense situation, depending on the context and that officer, maybe the officer overreacts and uses too much force to subdue and apprehend someone. Or, maybe it’s a story of racial profiling (individual or neighborhood). Or, perhaps an officer is engaged in some kind of illegal activity. Unfortunately, the stories that make it in the news and the videos are pulled from the much smaller percentage of sensationalized incidents. The stores that seem to make headline news and go viral are the .1% (tenth of a percent) stories, and it’s those that shape public perception. Stories of corruption are important and need to be addressed, however, they really need to be balanced by a more representative presentation of the 99.9 other stories about law enforcement serving the public.

National Problem. According to a Criminal Justice Fact Sheet from the NAACP:

  • African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population
  • African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites
  • Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population
  • According to Unlocking America, if African American and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates of whites, today’s prison and jail populations would decline by approximately 50%

It’s hard to disagree about hard data and facts.

What people disagree on is the cause of racial disparity in the justice system.

  • Internal Causes. Some people conclude that the racial disparity in the justice system is almost entirely the fault of the justice system being internally racist in some way, and if we’ll just fix the justice system then the problem will be solved. This is the position of those opposed to building larger jails: “Fix the racially biased justice system first, and then you won’t need larger jails.” Or, similarly, “I’m not in favor of investing any tax payer money in a system that’s been proven to be racially biased.” Yet, the specifics of where racial unfairness exists and who is specifically at fault seem to be elusive. Who, specifically, are the people making racially biased decisions? What, specifically, are the laws that need to be changed? Are specific judges racially biased? Who, specifically, are the police officers who tend to focus their energy and attention on neighborhoods where people of color predominantly live? Who, specifically, are the police officers who use racial profiling (consciously or subconsciously) when deciding who to pull over?
  • External Causes. It’s highly unlikely that there is a nation-wide conspiracy to disproportionately arrest people of color and treat them unfairly. What’s more plausible is that we’ve created (or permitted) a racially biased and unfair social, economic, and political structure where people of color are discriminated against at foundational levels of education, employment, and opportunity — then, we act surprised when some of these disenfranchised, marginalized, and oppressed people grow up, break some laws, and get arrested. Anyone coming from a difficult background, with limited means, is going to have less access to legal services, outside support, and bail money. This will, of course, make their situation worse.
  • Both Internal and External Causes. Of course, the answer is probably that both internal and external influences are resulting in the racial disparity we see in the justice system.

Finding Solutions. It’s easy to blame “the police” or “the justice system” for racial disparities. However, the problem isn’t as simple as correcting a failed justice system. The problem permeates our entire society. Blame shifting simply avoids addressing the real problems, and inhibits finding real solutions. The solutions are going to be found “way up stream” and not in a local jail or court system.

No New Jail – Iowa City Group Opposed to Johnson County Jail (Justice Center)

20130425th-jail-oppostion-logo-188x188Summary. and the “No New Jail” campaign are initiatives of a group in Johnson County, Iowa opposed to jail expansion for the county.

A proposal from the county includes expansion of the courthouse facilities and jail. The proposed project is named the Justice Center.

The opposition group, based in Iowa City, is focused on resisting the jail portion of the proposal.

To learn more about the group, visit


Note/Disclaimer: As stated on the Justice Equity about page, our focus is on exploring and implementing solutions that will reduce crime and incarceration. We feel that divisiveness and demonizing or blaming “the other” isn’t as productive as cooperation, respect, and collaboration. While Justice Equity embraces the concerns of many decarceration groups, and uses their data, we can’t endorse all of their methods. We almost always agree on the problems, but not always agree on the solutions. To those who say, “the solution is we need to stop arresting people” or “we just need to stop building jails” we say that it’s more important to pursue initiatives that will genuinely reduce crime making arrests and incarceration a non-issue.

Bail Should Be Based on a Person’s Financial Means


The following article was submitted by Sherman J. from Maryland. It refers to the relative cost of bail in Johnson County, Iowa compared with other locations.

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From what I understand, it is unfortunately very common across the country (and probably around the world) for people to be held prior to trial. It is understandable in some cases though. Suppose someone is arrested and charged with a serious crime. If they were simply released on their own recognizance because they promise to return for trial, many defendants would simply disappear — maybe move to another state.

Of course they might still do that if they post bail (or someone posts it for them) but it is at least less likely.

If judges and magistrates are stipulating ‘cash-only’ bail, but the amount is 10% of what the ‘regular’ bail amount would be, then it’s all the same to the defendant. I have no idea if that’s the case, but if so they are just reducing the number of potential clients for bail bond companies.

However, from what I’ve heard it sounds as if that’s not the case — that whatever the amount is, it’s greater than 10% of the usual, customary amount of “regular” bail for a similar alleged offense. In other words, “excessive”.

Of some consolation to those who are found guilty is the fact that judges almost always give credit for time served. Of course, if a person is innocent then they were just locked up for some length of time for no reason. Bad form on the part of the state.

I believe strongly that those found to have been imprisoned wrongfully should be paid by the jurisdiction that is responsible. A certain amount per day. That’s at a minimum. If it can be shown that there was any negligence; improper actions on the part of the prosecution; ineffective/incompetent defense; police corruption (racism, planted evidence), etc, then those responsible should be tried, convicted, and thrown into jail themselves — with the general population.

There are of course cases of wrongful arrest, and they should dealt with as well, but in cases where the arrest was reasonable and the charges legitimate, then we get into balancing the community’s rights vs. the rights of the accused. It does seem reasonable to me for the court to demand some assurance that the person will return for trial if they are released. My impression is that judges do try to assess the defendant’s financial situation and set bail accordingly. In other words, Bill Gates would likely have to pay more than a bus driver. If that’s done correctly, it could be argued that it’s a fair system.

A related subject is fines. In my opinion, fines should be determined by a person’s wealth & income. Some Scandinavian countries do this. I recall reading that the CEO of Nokia got a speeding ticket and the fine was something like US$100,000. If he makes/made about $500 to $1,000 times what the average citizen makes then that fine seems perfectly reasonable to me. The point of course is that it should be the same for everyone. So a parking ticket would be a percentage of a person’s income and/or net worth — not a fixed amount. As it is, for a certain segment of society, fines are little more than an inconvenience. $200 is a big chunk of my monthly pension benefit, but to the coach of the Hawkeyes it’s what, maybe 0.01% of his annual salary? People with six-figure incomes, or higher, can go through life disregarding many laws with almost complete impunity.

If bail is set reasonably and fairly so that it represents the same ‘bite’ for everyone then I’m ok with it. Some people still won’t be able to pay (or find someone to pay for them) but at least it wouldn’t be a situation where bail is set at a fixed amount where the top 10% (say) walk and the bottom 40% rot in jail.

Then there is that whole “speedy trial” thing in the Sixth Amendment. I’m not sure if there are any fixed limits. In other words, is the state forced to release people if they cannot try them within X number of days?

Also, Amendment VIII — “Excessive bail shall not be required…”.

“Speedy”. “Excessive”. Hmmm…