Jails in crisis across U.S. try mix of approaches

In metro Atlanta, officials have been experimenting with different methods to keep inmates safer – and reduce jail populations. For instance, Cobb County launched a 24-hour mental health program at its detention center. (Courtesy of Cobb County)

In metro Atlanta, officials have been experimenting with different methods to keep inmates safer – and reduce jail populations. For instance, Cobb County launched a 24-hour mental health program at its detention center. (Courtesy of Cobb County)

Possible Solutions

Across the country, local jails are facing a crisis: As jail populations increase, so, too, are deaths among inmates.

Here, in metro Atlanta, officials have been experimenting with different methods to keep inmates safer – and reduce jail populations.

In 2021, for instance, Cobb County launched a 24-hour mental health program at its detention center, becoming the first jail in Georgia to do so. A year later, the Cobb County sheriff also began testing a new technology intended to keep closer watch over inmates. It uses electronic devices worn on the wrist to track and monitor inmates.

Across the metro area, sheriffs have also been working on ways to reduce the recidivism that keeps jails full. They range from offering classes to help inmates receive their GEDs and become more responsible parents, as well as vocational training in fields such as landscaping, cosmetology, welding, building maintenance and even computer science.

The Newton County Detention Center has even offered art classes, intended to help inmates express themselves and hopefully become law-abiding citizens.

Elsewhere, states and local governments have tried other approaches – from reforming the bail process for nonviolent offenders, to building new jails, to holding jailers more accountable.

Could some of those ideas provide inspiration here?

Focusing on mental health

Jails have become de facto holding facilities for people with mental illnesses, and corrections officials and staff often aren’t equipped to address these needs.

In fact, about 2 in 5 people who are incarcerated have a history of mental illness, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report published in 2017.

To address that need, the Forsyth County detention center in North Carolina opened a new behavioral unit, providing counseling and mental health services to inmates. Every person going to the behavioral health unit must agree to consistently take psychiatric medications as prescribed.

For some, it’s the first diagnosis and treatment they’ve received in their lives.

Jail staff say the behavioral health unit, which opened in 2021, is making a difference.

Before the unit was created, segregation was the only option for some people in the facility – either as a form of restraint or to protect them from other inmates. But jail staff say they’ve witnessed individuals carrying the skills and coping tools they’ve learned at the unit with them once they leave.

“It’s obvious that it’s working,” said Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough. “It’s obvious that it’s needed. And it’s obvious that it’s something that we’re going to maintain and sustain.”

North Carolina Health News

Reforming Bail

To curb deaths in jail, criminal justice experts have recommended dramatically lowering the number of inmates. That’s where bail reform could help.

Across the country, several counties and states are trying to reform the bail process.

Aimed at nonviolent offenders who can’t afford to pay a few hundred or a few thousand dollars, bail reform allows them to wait for their day in court at home instead of spending time in jail.

In 2017, New Jersey all but eliminated cash bail. The overall jail population declined in the state by 45%.

Two years later, New York State passed a law to reform its bail system.

Months after the new bail law went into effect, the jail population in New York had dropped by 46%, according to a study by the Vera Institute of Justice, an independent nonprofit national research and policy organization.

In that short window of almost completely ending cash bail, researchers found that many of the fears people held — that crime would go up, or that people wouldn’t show up to court — were unfounded.

The re-arrest rate for people released before trial went from 19% in 2019 to 20% in 2021. And missed court dates decreased. (Since then, the laws have been amended and cash bail is still in use in the state.)

On Jan. 1, Illinois became the first state to completely eliminate cash bail, though still allowing judges to detain people they deem a threat to the community.

Arizona Luminaria

Holding officials accountable

In California, lawmakers recently passed legislation aimed at reducing the number of people who die in the state’s jails.

Senate Bill 519 would create the position of director of in-custody review inside the Board of State and Community Corrections, the panel that oversees county jails. If signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, the bill would also make public the internal sheriff’s reports on deaths in custody — something the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department has resisted for years.

The requirement that internal sheriffs’ reports on jail deaths become subject to public disclosure will be a helpful tool to families of people who died in custody and historically have been unable to learn details of what happened, said Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, a Democrat from San Diego who introduced the bill. “SB 519 would give families the transparency they deserve and provide enough oversight so that the county can work to reduce further deaths,” she said.

The San Diego Sheriff’s Department also has repeatedly been accused of failing to provide adequate staffing and training to people working in its jails. And other California counties also have seen a spate of recent in-custody deaths.

San Diego Union-Tribune

Building new jails

To replace deficient and dangerous old facilities, some cities are planning to build new jails.

Shortly before the pandemic began, New York City, for instance, approved a plan to spend nearly $9 billion in coming years to build four new jails, one each in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens. Doing so would allow the city to close its infamous, and substandard, Rikers Island jail.

And in Missouri, Kansas City is planning to build its own new jail, rather than partner on a replacement facility with the county that encompasses the city.

Kansas City closed its own jail in 2009, and for 10 years, detainees were housed at the Regional Correctional Center, a building next to the Jackson County Detention Center. Since 2019, Kansas City has been leaning on rural counties for bed space.

Check the sources that informed our reporting

Focusing on mental health

  • To learn more about the behavioral unit at the Forsyth County detention center in North Carolina, you can read the full story, written by North Carolina Health News, by visiting here.
  • That story cites a study from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. To see how the organization conducted its research and to learn more about its conclusions, visit here.

Reforming bail

  • To learn more about bail reform efforts across the country, you can read the full story, written by Arizona Luminaria, by visiting here. You can also learn more about Arizona Luminaria, a nonprofit news organization, and how its journalists went about reporting this story.
  • To learn more about the Vera Institute of Justice, a voice in the story, you can visit here.
  • The Quattrone Center, based at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, is a nonpartisan, national research and policy hub. It studied the impact of bail reform in Harris County, Texas. You can find the full study here.
  • The Prison Policy Initiative is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group that produces research on the topic of criminalization. Those findings can then prompt advocacy campaigns to help create a more-just society. In 2020, the group studied four states and nine counties that had adopted pretrial reforms, including bail reform. You can find the full study here.

Holding officials accountable

  • To learn more about the bill in California, you can read the full story in The San Diego Union-Tribune by visiting here.
  • You can learn more about Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, the sponsor of California’s Senate Bill 519, by visiting here.

Building new jails

Read our previous coverage:

As part of our commitment to strong local journalism, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has long reported on conditions at area jails. You can learn more here:


As part of our solutions-oriented focus, The Atlanta Journal- Constitution partners with the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about social issues. This special opinion report uses information from stories shared across their network.