On a recent afternoon at the city hall in Toledo, Ohio, Holly Matthews is teaching her colleagues some slang. “I forgot to tell everyone my new word of the day,” she says. “It’s ‘pookie.’” A pookie, Matthews explains, is another word for a crack pipe. “I checked with Urban Dictionary,” she says, chuckling.
Matthews is executive director of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, an agency that provides criminal justice information services to residents of Lucas County in Northwest Ohio. She is also one of a dozen members of the county’s Population Review Team, an interagency group that seeks ways of reducing or eliminating jail time for new or low-level offenders, with the goal of reducing incarceration rates in Lucas County’s overburdened jails. (Matthews’ “pookie” was in a case file she was reviewing, found by police in the pocket of a man who was arrested after a domestic dispute.)
The atmosphere in the room can be lighthearted, but the Population Review Team’s work is serious business — especially in Toledo, Lucas’ county seat, where reducing incarceration rates is sorely needed. The county’s jail is designed to hold only pretrial inmates, but it is being overburdened by too many people waiting to see a judge. In 2014, a U.S. Federal judge ordered the county to cap its jail population, which had a capacity of 346 beds. Two years after the cap was set, the jail’s population has been reduced to 667 people — down from 845 in 2016 — for the first quarter this year, according to Matthews.
To try and address these issues of overcrowding, the Population Review Team meets once a week to review the county’s jail cases to find ways to reduce bail, alter criminal offenses and, in some cases, eliminate or reduce jail time completely.
Toledo isn’t alone in dealing with overcrowded jails.
Nationally, jail populations have been steadily rising, contributing to high incarceration rates throughout the country. Daily local jail populations swelled from 157,000 in 1970 to over 700,000 people in 2015. Annually, there are close to 11 million admissions into jails, according to data collected by the Vera Institute of Justice.
“It’s become a crisis because as we’ve added laws that impose mandatory sentencing,” says Gene A. Zmuda, a common pleas court judge for Lucas County. “We are incarcerating more and more of our population.”
For those on the Population Review Team — along with Matthews, the group includes local correction officers and defense attorneys — this means reviewing rap sheets to determine if there are ways to release inmates without putting the public at risk, such as increased usage of electronic monitoring.
In other cases, plea deals are brokered, according to Sean McNulty, chief public defender for the Toledo Legal Aid Society and an original member of the review team. Candidates who are deemed “good” — those with misdemeanor charges or nonviolent crimes — can have their bail modified or their case expedited or, in some cases, they are simply set free.
Zmuda invokes an example of a first-time drug user. “Maybe jail isn’t the right place for that person,” he says. “Send them to rehabilitation and break the cycle of addiction.”
The program started in 2016, after the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded the county a $2 million grant directing local mental-health organizations to partner with law enforcement officials, with the intent to “institute changes aimed at reducing local incarceration and disparities in jail usage in accordance with its implementation plan.”
Over the course of an afternoon, the team isolates about a dozen defendants in custody whose charges will be reviewed. During a recent meeting, McNulty and John Madigan, the city’s prosecutor, were able to agree to several resolutions for a handful of people who were sitting in the county’s jail. The negotiations included a reduced charge, credit for time served and a probation term.
According to Matthews, this comprehensive collaboration and review reduced 1,800 jail days in total for 2017. And while the jail’s population isn’t as low as officials want it to be, they point to the reductions they’ve made in the past two years, by almost two hundred inmates in total.
“Jail buildup happened over 40 years and it won’t be solved in just a year or two,” says Patrick Griffin, the senior program officer for the MacArthur Foundation.
Along with the review board meetings, Lucas County officials have implemented four other strategies — such as training cops to identify alternatives to arrests or keeping people with mental health issues out of jail — to help in reducing the county’s jail population.
And as the initiative continues, Griffin hopes that solutions like the ones being implemented in Lucas County will spread to other parts of the state, and beyond.
“It will take success and then practitioners will take notice,” he says. “We have to increase demand among citizens for jail reform.”
Zmuda, McNulty and others believe that the next important step will be addressing the overrepresentation of minors in the system, along with keeping substance abusers from getting swept into the jail.
“We’re holding fewer — and holding the right — people,” says Zmuda. “We have right-sized our jail.”