Opinion: Increase in jail death-rate reveals underlying systemic flaws

The United States familiarly calls itself the “land of the free,” and holds itself out as a bastion of due process and civil rights. Yet, America’s jails are guilty of the worst forms of human rights abuses imaginable. A New York Times article entitled, “Jail Is a Death Sentence for a Growing Number of Americans” recounts the horror of life in America’s jails, shedding light on the systemic failure to provide basic services and care to America’s pre-trial inmate population. It should be noted that jails house pre-trial detainees, people who are presumed innocent by our system (meaning they may not be found guilty of any crime or might be convicted of lower offenses, many of which carry no prison time at all). Many of these people are in jail because they cannot afford even the most minimal bail, and wind up staying in jail longer than any sentence that might be imposed, even if they are found guilty.

It goes without saying that pre-trial incarceration is still necessary to protect society from its most violent offenders. There is no question about that. Yet, many offenders suffer from mental health problems and drug addiction, both of which can be addressed and treated preemptively.

Nationally, the number of jail deaths have been steadily rising as jail populations have swelled to record numbers. As a result of this rise in numbers, exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis, the inability of jails to care for the men and women in their care has become a true crisis. As reported by the New York Times, “from 2000 to 2019, jail deaths per capita increased by 11 percent, to 167 per 100,000. In 2019, suicide was the leading cause of death. The number of drug- and alcohol-related deaths was the highest ever recorded.”

These deaths reflect the inability of the jail system to care for the people in its custody. The jail and prison systems are the single largest provider of mental health care in the United States. Yet, there are inadequate resources available in the jails to deal with the needs of the addicted and mentally ill. Indeed, as noted by the New York Times, an emergency order was granted by a federal judge after the American Civil Liberties Union provided evidence that people with mental illness were being chained to furniture for days or left to sleep on concrete floors without access to toilets.

Similarly, jails don’t have the ability to care for individuals with standard medical conditions. For example, a young man suffering from diabetes died in a Houston jail where he was being held for a DUI when he was denied insulin. There are many stories like this across the United States providing a horrifying picture of the staggering failures of the jail system to treat its inmates humanely or safely. Indeed, these same problems plague our prison system (where people serve prison sentences once they are found guilty), which incarcerates 25% of the world’s prison population.

It is apparent that we do not have the ability to properly care for the individuals in the care and custody of our jail and prison systems. It is time for a real focus on alternatives to incarceration through all phases of the criminal justice system, including pre-trial detention. For example, increased release of pre-trial defendants during the COVID-19 crisis showed that we rely too heavily on detention and that cash-bond is largely unnecessary. In lieu of cash-bond, electronic monitoring works to ensure court appearance where needed and is much more cost-effective than pre-trial detention. It makes sense to start revamping and eliminating the cash-bond system, which has also been cited as a significant contributor to the racial disparities known to exist in the criminal justice system. 

Another problem that weighs on the jail system is the over-criminalization of petty drug offenses. The war on drugs has also been a war on people and entire communities, tearing families apart and causing cycles of recidivism and poverty. No doubt, the violent gangs and major drug traffickers need to be separated from society. However, the treatment of addiction goes hand in hand with mental health treatment and would be a far more effective and beneficial answer for low level drug users and dealers who sell to maintain their habits. If community treatment facilities and more drug courts were properly implemented and funded, jail populations could be significantly reduced.

Critics argue that preventive programs are too costly. However, jailing people is also very expensive. The average cost of holding a person in jail is over $34,000 per year, and costs are steadily rising. Thus, increased focus on community mental health programs, in conjunction with alternatives to pre-trial detention, would be a better use of resources than increasing the number of jails, which simply continues the problematic cycle.

As a society, we cannot tolerate the inhumane treatment of people in our care. We are at the breaking point in our system, caused largely by the “lock em up” mentality which has thrown wood on an ever-growing fire. It’s time to reallocate resources to mental health and drug treatment to prevent crime. We must also stop utilizing detention as a simple cure-all throughout the justice system. We can no longer take the moral high-ground on humanitarian and due process issues if we do not address these fundamental flaws in our system of “justice.”