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.

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.

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.

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.

* * *

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…

Join our 20% by 2014 Campaign to Reduce Incarceration Rates

We Can Do Better. Justice Equity is based in Iowa City, and our county has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the world. [source] That’s good, but we can do better. That’s why we’re launching our 20% by 2014 campaign.

Join Us. Join with us by submitting your ideas for reducing incarceration rates. Spread the word about incarceration reduction, and start a campaign in your area to reduce incarceration. If you’re open to a healthy competition, we’re willing to compete with your community. The municipality with the greatest reduction of incarceration rates will win. The prizes of this competition are yet to be determined. Click here to view the roster of top initiatives for reducing incarceration.

Our Goal. In Johnson County, our jail was originally designed for 46 people. The national average for a population of our size would be 930. The county is proposing a jail to accommodate 195 beds (80% smaller than the national average). That’s above the current local average of 160, but below the current peak demand of 200. So, our goal is to see that the incarceration rates, and peak demand are below the maximum capacity of our local jail.

Our Methods. We have some programs already in place, like programs to reduce arrests and incarceration of students, and others being evaluated, such as alternatives to public intoxication arrests). More ideas are on the way. Follow our site and our Facebook page to watch for additional ideas on how to reduce arrests and incarceration.

Your Goal. What’s  your goal for your community? How to do plan to achieve it? Share your story here, or we’ll link to your blog. Feel free to provide videos and testimonials about how incarceration reduction initiatives are working on your area.


Alcohol is a factor in 40% of all violent crimes today

20130422mo-national-council-on-alcoholism-and-drug-dependence-ncadd-logo-300x80Introduction. People complain when college students are arrested and jailed for public intoxication, “It’s just young people having a good time.”

Unfortunately, this attitude seems to minimize the potential crime risk that is statistically caused by the influence of alcohol. The following information is from the National Council on Alcoholism and  Drug Dependence.

* * *

Excessive drinking leads to criminal behavior:

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) estimated that a majority of criminal offenders were under the influence of alcohol alone when they committed their crimes.

Federal research shows that for the 40% of convicted murderers being held in either jail or State prison, alcohol use was a factor in the homicide.

FACT:  Alcohol is a factor in 40% of all violent crimes today

About 3 million violent crimes occur each year in which victims perceive the offender to have been drinking.  Crimes include: rape, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated and simple assault.  About two-thirds of violent crimes are characterized as simple assaults.

Based on victim reports, alcohol use by the offender was a factor in:

  • 37% of rapes and sexual assaults
  • 15% of robberies
  • 27% of aggravated assaults, and
  • 25% of simple assaults

Statistics showing correlation between alcohol and crime (from the NCADD Fact Sheet Alcohol and Crime):

  • Among violent crimes, the offender is far more likely to have been drinking than under the influence of other drugs, with the exception of robberies, where other drugs are likely to have been used such as alcohol.
  • Alcohol is more likely to be a factor in violence, where the attacker and the victim know each other.  Two-thirds of victims who were attacked by an intimate (including a current or former spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend) reported that alcohol had been involved, and only 31% of victimizations by strangers are alcohol-related.
  • Nearly 500,000 incidents between intimates involve offenders who have been drinking; in addition, 118,000 incidents of family violence (excluding spouses) involve alcohol, as do 744,000 incidents among acquaintances.
  • 1.4 million incidents of alcohol-related violence are committed against strangers.
  • Individuals under age 21 were the victims in just over 13% of incidents of alcohol-related violence, and the offenders in nearly 9%.
  • 70% of alcohol-related incidents of violence occur in the home with greatest frequency at 11:00 pm…..20% of these incidents involve the use of a weapon other than hands, fists or feet.

Men and women suffer.  Children suffer.  Families suffer.  Loved ones suffer.  People get killed.  Alcohol and Crime go hand in hand.  It’s simply a fact. 

Effectively confronting alcohol-related crime will require a balanced approach of public education, professional training, increased assessment and referral for treatment, expanded access to treatment, recovery housing and recovery support.  For the great majority of offenders, we rely solely on punishment or incarceration as the only response…….and for most, not surprisingly, it is ineffective.  Plain and simple, we have failed to treat the cause – binge drinking, alcohol abuse and dependence- alcoholism.

Questions and Answers with Bob Thompson – Crime Rate and Incarceration Rates Inconsistent

Justice Equity: Is the rate of incarceration reflective of increases in crime rates?

Bob Thompson: The jail population and the crime rate don’t match up at all. The crime rate (serious crimes, “Type A” to be precise) is stable, jail population is not.[1]

Regarding diversion programs, the only existing “alternative” program they claim might not be fully utilized due to space limitations is the Mental Health Diversion program. Pertaining to that program, the only claim they make as to the inadequacy of the current jail is that “many inmates are housed out of county which creates barriers to getting inmates released through the mental health diversion program.”

This is not a 50 million dollar problem. There should be ample opportunity to accomplish mental health screening before an inmate gets a ride to Muscatine. For that matter, Muscatine provides one complementary round trip shuttle per day, so the occasional inmate housed there who requests an evaluation should be able to get here and get one.

All other programs would occur in custody. The only proposed programs that would truly be “jail alternatives” or “diversion” programs are in the list of those which “would require additional funding/resources.” NONE of those require space in the Justice Center.[2]

Without a viable plan for controlling jail population growth NOW by getting as many people out as safely possible, I’m going with John Neff’s conclusion: There’s a good possibility the new facility might be too small the day it opens.

They seem not to realize this. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to vote this down until they do what they should have done all along, and maximize use of a wide array of evidence based programs that stop or possibly reverse jail population growth.

By definition, “jail alternatives” do NOT have to occur in jail, thus they do not have to be housed in the same facility; and there’s no evidence that any “jail alternative” program cannot function without the proposed Justice Center.[3]



  1. Data and charts of crime rates for Johnson County, Iowa are provided by
  2. Editor’s Note. There may be benefits to inmates gained by having additional space to meet with family, lawyers, or other services providers.
  3. Editors Note. To the extent that those incarcerated present a flight risk or threat to society, services provided to them may be best offered in the jail. Long-term incarceration reduction through recidivism reduction programs will likely happen in the context of the jail. It’s true that prevention programs, if effective, won’t be offered in jails, but long before a person has had trouble with the law. Having a jail prevention program in a jail seems like too little too late.

Questions and Answers with Bob Thompson – Overloaded Court System and Limited Funding for Justice System Services

Justice Equity: What is the cause of the overloaded court system in Johnson County, Iowa?

Bob Thompson: The Judicial Branch is funded by the State, and the State is seriously underfunding the Judicial branch, DCS, and the Public Defenders. I suspect that if this situation could be remedied, the jail population would drop substantially; unless they actually like the non-compliance with case processing times mandated by Iowa Code.

“The Iowa Code requires that trials commence within six months (approximately 26 weeks) for indictable crimes. In FY 2012 there were 45 individuals charged with indictable offenses that had been in jail waiting trial for 26 to 100 weeks.” [Source: “Time to correct underlying causes of jail overcrowding,” Press Citizen, 31 March 2013, by John Neff]

In fact, John Neff recently completed a study demonstrating the radical effect that timely case processing would have on the jail population; it would drop by a third:

“It is possible determine what would happen to jail bed usage if the length of stay were capped. In this numerical study to see how much bed use could be reduced the length of stay for misdemeanours was capped at eight weeks and for felonies twenty six weeks. The data used for this illustration were taken from jail booking records for FY 2012. The offence classes were all felonies, all misdemeanors and combined court and corrections infractions. The offence types were alcohol (public intoxication and OWI), drug, other (all motor vehicle, public order and miscellaneous charges) and traditional. Traditional offences have been considered to be crimes for thousands of years in societies all over the world and their common feature is they involve acts that harm others. In this study traditional offences include: larceny, fraud, assault, burglary, arson, robbery, rape, kidnapping and homicide. Court infractions include contempt, violation of a court order and failure to appear/pay. Corrections infractions are parole and probation violations but they could have been the result of an arrest on a new charge.” [Source: “‘What If’ We Capped Length of Stay?,”, 22 March 2013]

Space alone cannot solve a problem created by a severe imbalance between criminal justice system input and output. The best answer to how the Justice Center would solve this in any tiny way was recently discussed by the CJCC: Basically, we are entitled to get one more judge if we have a place to put him/her (another courtroom and office, I assume).

Personally, at this point I’d ask for proof that this is the only way to get another judge, before believing that this is anything other than a campaign promise. I won’t argue the need for more space for the court system, but that alone is not going to fix this at all.

Will we get more Clerk of Court staff? How is one more judge going to improve case processing without increasing other staff? (Or reducing the overall caseload, of course) Where’s the budget for that? They are clearly swamped. JoCo is switching to electronic filing later this year, that may improve efficiency, but I doubt it can remedy this significantly. The BoS is apparently unaware that this is even a problem; if they did, I’d assume they would have mentioned increased state funding for these agencies in their Legislative Priorities. They didn’t.