Buncombe County is the recipient of a $1.75 million grant by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to continue building on efforts in collaboration with local leaders and the community to rethink the local criminal justice system, safely reduce Buncombe County’s jail population, and eliminate racial inequities. The grant brings the Foundation’s total investment in Buncombe County to $3.55 million to date and is part of the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC), a $246 million national initiative to reduce over-incarceration and advance racial equity in local criminal justice systems by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails.
Buncombe County was first selected to join the SJC Network in 2017 and has since used the resources and funding provided by the initiative to implement evidence-based solutions including: diversion to behavioral health and substance abuse treatment, enhancing pretrial services, improvements to case processing, supporting ongoing community engagement, advancing racial equity, and the launch of a new community safety and violence prevention initiative.
Today, Buncombe County was one of 15 jurisdictions selected for additional funding based on the promise and progress of work to date. This new round of funding will provide Buncombe County Government and its partners with continued support and expert technical assistance to strengthen and expand strategies that address the main drivers and resulting racial inequities of local jail incarceration.
Safely reducing the jail population
The initial funding and network support enhanced collaboration across justice system and community partners working toward the goal to safely reduce the jail population, making it easier to respond quickly and efficiently during the pandemic.
As a result, Buncombe County has surpassed the original SJC goal to reduce the jail population by 15% with the average monthly population declining by 30% between February 2019 and January 2021. Importantly, during this same period law enforcement has not reported an increase in overall crime rates. Further, individuals released from custody during the reduction period have not experienced increases in recidivism due to a new criminal charge. For example, the percentage of pretrial releases returned to custody for a new charge during a three month period was 17.4% in 2019. In 2020 it was 15.1%.
Addressing racial disparities
Building on Buncombe County’s progress to date is especially critical as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the existing racial disparities for Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other people of color reinforce the importance of building equitable opportunities for all to access justice.
The collaborative work to safely reduce the jail population put the necessary steps in place for Buncombe to respond well during the pandemic; however, while we have seen progress with safely decreasing the jail population, we have also seen an increase in the overrepresentation of the Black population. The new infusion of funding will allow staff to work to address root causes of inequities and sustain new community safety initiatives.
“The pandemic we are enduring has highlighted inequities and created opportunities for much-needed reform,” states Buncombe County Sheriff Miller. “This funding is a vital asset to our continued commitment to working toward reforms in the jail and justice system. This grant also increases our ability to analyze the data, implement those changes, and adopt best practices for our community.”
Sustaining our jail reduction progress is critical work that must continue, and partners in Buncombe County are working together to identify strategies to sustain that progress while prioritizing reducing racial and ethnic disparities and increasing community engagement with the local justice system.
“Actors in the criminal justice system must constantly seek to improve equity, accountability, safety, and efficiency at every stage of the process,” said Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Alan Thornburg. “We must approach our roles with humility and remain open to change. These resources allow us to implement necessary changes based on hard data and best practices.”
About the Safety and Justice Challenge
More than five years after its public launch, the Safety and Justice Challenge has grown into a collaborative of 51 jurisdictions in 32 states modeling and inspiring reforms to create more fair, just, and equitable local justice systems across the country.
“We must confront the devastating impacts of mass incarceration by a system that over-polices and over-incarcerates Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people,” said Laurie Garduque, MacArthur’s Director of Criminal Justice. “Over the past five years, the Safety and Justice Challenge has safely reduced the ineffective and harmful use of jails, while learning that jail population reduction alone does not undo the racial inequities perpetuated by an unjust system and our nation’s history of systemic racism. We are committed to supporting cities and counties as they reimagine a definition of safety that is inclusive of all communities and makes meaningful progress towards our goal of ending racial and ethnic disparities in jails.”
Several of the nation's leading criminal justice organizations will continue to provide technical assistance and counsel to Buncombe County partners and the other jurisdictions involved in the Safety and Justice Challenge. These include the Center for Court Innovation, Everyday Democracy, Nexus Community Partners, the Institute for State and Local Governance at the City University of New York, JFA Institute, the Justice Management Institute, Justice System Partners, the Pretrial Justice Institute, Policy Research, Inc., the Vera Institute of Justice, the W. Haywood Burns Institute, Urban Institute, and Bennett Midland.
More information about the work underway in Buncombe County can be found on www.buncombecounty.org/sjc as well as www.SafetyandJusticeChallenge.org.
About the MacArthur Foundation
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation supports creative people, effective institutions, and influential networks building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. MacArthur is placing a few big bets that truly significant progress is possible on some of the world’s most pressing social challenges, including advancing global climate solutions, decreasing nuclear risk, promoting local justice reform in the U.S., and reducing corruption in Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria. In addition to the MacArthur Fellows Program and the global 100&Change competition, the Foundation continues its historic commitments to the role of journalism in a responsive democracy as well as the vitality of our headquarters city, Chicago. More information about the Foundation’s criminal justice reform work can be found at www.macfound.org/criminaljustice.