County gets $2M grant to reform criminal justice

Palm Beach County Jail. (WPEC)

Palm Beach County criminal justice leaders are banking on a multi-million dollar grant to cut crime and reduce the county’s jail inmate population.

Judge Jeffrey Colbath announced a $2 million grant given to the County by Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The grant was awarded as part of the foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, a $100 million national grant campaign focused on reducing over-incarceration.

“We want to make sure we keep the right people in jail,” Judge Colbath said.

While Palm Beach County’s incarceration rate is 58% below the national average, county leaders are hoping to reduce that number another 17% in the next 2 years.

On any given day, there are 2,210 inmates housed at the Palm Beach County Jail.

County leaders say they believe some of the inmates may be better off out of jail.

“We want to examine this process through data and that’s what MacArthur has given us,” Judge Colbath said.

Judge Colbath says the grant will fund launching programs and initiatives that will begin with implementing an unbiased measuring system that judges can use to determine bond during First Appearance hearings.

“We want to make sure we are more uniform in how we treat the people who come before us,” Judge Colbath said.

The programs will be primarily focused on low risk inmates and those being held for pre-trial detention. Judge Colbath says the grant will use data to determine the best ways to also address unequal racial incarcerations.

“It is true everywhere, minorities are over represented in jails and inappropriately so,” Judge Colbath said.

According to the Palm Beach County Criminal Justice Commission, the average stay in jail for minorities are far longer than whites.

African Americans (44 days)

Hispanics (40 days)

Whites (25 days)

Palm Beach County Commissioner David Kerner says the programs created through the grant will help to not only reduce crime, but also save taxpayers’ money. It’s estimated nearly 14 cents of every taxpayer dollar is spent on the jail.

“When a budget comes to us and $158 million of that budget is attributed to incarcerating people for low level crimes or pretrial detention purposes, that’s a scary concept,” Commissioner Kerner said.

According to the PBC Criminal Justice Commission, in 2016, 3,528 people were arrested and jailed for Failure to Appear charges. In all but two, the charges were non-violent felonies and low-level charges.

Judge Colbath said one way the county is looking to address Failure to Appear cases is using some of the grant funding to install automated systems that will call and remind defendants of their cases before they’re due in court, much like how automated systems are used by doctor’s offices to remind patients about appointments.

The County’s criminal justice leaders admit there are also needed reforms outside of the jail and courtrooms, and specifically when it involves people with mental health issues.

According to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, the Palm Beach County Jail is the largest mental health provider in the county.

The PBC Criminal Justice Commission says from July 2016 through June 2017, Palm Beach County had 108 individuals jailed at least three times, or more, who also accessed homeless services. In total, these individuals used 5,648 bed days at the county jail for a total cost of $762,480.

Kristina Henson, Executive Director of the Palm Beach County Criminal Justice Commission, says they’re using a program called FUSE to help these homeless individuals find more permanent supportive housing, as opposed to rotating in and out of the jail unnecessarily.

The $2 million grant is expected to support the programs for two years, at which point, Judge Colbath says the programs will need to become self-sufficient.


Palm Beach County

2017 Safety and Justice Challenge Fact Sheet

We’ve got solutions to these issues:

Supported with $2 million from the Safety and Justice Challenge, Palm Beach County will implement

forward-looking, smart solutions, to address these issues and reduce the jail population by 17 percent over

the next two years.

Strategies will touch major decision-points in the system, ranging from diversion to pretrial release to case

processing, and are embraced across public safety and community partners. These data-driven innovations

will reduce jail bed usage while ensuring the county prioritizes public safety while ensuring access to

critically needed services for those most in need.

Over the next two years the county will employ five strategies: an increased focus on risk assessment and

smart release options for pretrial inmates; improved case processing efficiencies for pretrial inmates who

are not released; diversion and warrant reduction for low-level defendants; increased data capacity and

analysis of the local system; and measures to reduce racial and ethnic disparities, including implicit bias

training for all criminal justice agencies.

The county will roll out a text message-based court data notification system to reduce failures to appear

and to prevent new warrants for low-level defendants.

A new Frequent Users Systems Engagement (FUSE) project will break the cycle of incarceration and

homelessness for frequent low-level defendants with behavioral health challenges.

Who is helping to affect change?

The strategies and initiatives outlined in the Safety and Justice Challenge are being led by the Palm Beach

County Criminal Justice Commission and its member organizations including the offices of the State

Attorney, Public Defender, Sheriff, Judiciary, Municipal Law Enforcement, and School District, along with

other government and community organizations.

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