For the first time in nearly 40 years, the number of state prisoners in the United States has declined, according to the Department of Justice. While local jails have also experienced a modest decrease, those numbers may change with the diversion of state prisoners from state correctional facilities to local jails.
Why the diversion? State budget woes. However, local governments have not fared better. State aid and property taxes, which together account for more than half of local revenues, are dropping simultaneously for the first time since 1980.
A significant amount of local revenue goes toward corrections— the local county jail—and half of those costs can be attributed to inmates in pretrial detention. Those are individuals who have been arrested, accused of a crime—not convicted—who remain in jail awaiting trial.
Pretrial detention increased at the same time "get tough" policies drove prison populations through the roof. In the ten years between 1996 and 2006, the number of people held in pretrial detention in local jails increased by more than 20 percent.
Failure to grant pretrial release comes in the form of setting a bond beyond the defendant's ability to post. Bond need not be a million dollars to be excessive. For some defendants posting a couple hundred dollars is beyond reach.
What does that mean for taxpayers? A defendant unable to post bond leaves the public on the hook.
In the five counties surrounding Youngstown it costs between $65 and $80 a day to house an inmate.
An inmate unable to post bond who sits in jail for six months awaiting trial costs the taxpayers—about $12,000. As of October 1, Lawrence County had 239 inmates; Trumbull County had 292 and Mahoning County had 520. All three institutions estimate that more than half of those inmates are in pretrial detention.
That is not just a local trend. In 2011 about 61 percent of inmates in local jails nationwide were awaiting trial.
Some defendants being held pretrial belong in jail. Some are a legitimate flight risk while others are a danger to society. However, as many as 65 percent of those detained pretrial simply can't afford the bond.
We need to figure out who needs to be detained so we can explore detention diversions for those who shouldn't be. House arrest, electronic monitoring and day reporting are all much more cost effective than being locked away awaiting trial.
(Matthew T. Mangino is the former district attorney for Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. You can read his column every month in the Youngstown Vindicator. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on twitter @MatthewTMangino)
© 2012 Tom Shipka