Statement from Vera Institute of Justice on the Community First Pretrial Reform and Jail Decarceration Act

Editor’s note: Interviews with the Vera Institute of Justice and a diverse coalition of local leaders across the United States are available upon request.

Media Contact: Dominic Slowey | 781-710-0014 |

Tomorrow, U.S. Rep. David Trone (D-MD 6th) and U.S. Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-ND At-large District) will introduce the Community First Pretrial Reform and Jail Decarceration Act, or the Community First Act, which will support locally-driven efforts to reduce the number of people in jails, address racial inequities in incarceration, and redirect precious taxpayer dollars to community priorities that support families and ensure public safety. The funding will be prioritized for smaller communities with rising rates of incarceration.

Jasmine Heiss, the Director of the In Our Backyards Initiative at the Vera Institute of Justice, issued the following statement in support of the bill:

“For decades, the federal government has fueled a quiet jail boom in rural communities through grants, loans, and per diem payments that support or incentivize bigger jails at the expense of community programs. Given the scope and scale of the jail incarceration crisis in the United States, federal leadership is needed to reduce the burden of mass incarceration. It’s a strain on communities, and it’s a poor use of taxpayer dollars. The Community First Act represents a bipartisan effort to allow local governments to partner with community-based organizations and support reforms like the elimination or reduction of cash bail, the creation or expansion of pretrial services and diversion programs, and the early assignment of counsel. These efforts will result in a community-led reinvestment model that contributes to the health and safety of all people.

The spread of COVID-19 through rural communities and smaller cities with fragile health safety nets highlights the need to prioritize federal investment in these areas of the country. This global pandemic has revealed how the funding and support authorized in this legislation has never been more urgent for communities—particularly where vaccination rates are lagging and jail populations have already rebounded. Incarcerated people are at elevated risk of contracting COVID-19 and other communicable diseases due to close quarters, unsanitary conditions, and the constant flow of people in and out of jail.”

Background on the Community First Pretrial Reform and Jail Decarceration Act:

Many of the smallest communities in the United States are facing a cascade of economic and social problems: job loss, deepening poverty, deteriorating physical and mental health, increased substance use, and the hollowing out of public and private institutions. High and rising jail incarceration rates are at the center of these crises. More than half of people jailed in the United States are in small city and rural lockups, and approximately two-thirds of all people in jail are being held in pretrial detention—the vast majority of whom are too poor to post cash bail. With the rise of mass incarceration, poor and working people have been harmed by a justice system that criminalizes poverty, and Black and brown communities have been disproportionately criminalized and incarcerated. Rural communities have some of the worst racial disparities in incarceration and are driving a national increase in women’s incarceration. While the number of people in jails in the nation’s biggest cities declined by 18 percent between 2013 and 2019, the jail population grew by 27 percent in rural counties and 7 percent in smaller cities. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, rural counties saw the largest declines in jail populations—but these counties still incarcerate people at double the rate of urban and suburban areas. Ending mass incarceration in the United States depends on ending mass incarceration in the nation’s biggest cities and smallest towns.

The Community First Pretrial Reform and Jail Decarceration Act would authorize $600 million over five years for a new Justice Department grant program. Assistance would go to local government entities working in partnership with community-based organizations and directly impacted people, and would support implementation of reforms like the elimination or reduction of cash bail, the creation or expansion of pretrial services and diversion programs, and early assignment of counsel. Grantees would be required to reduce incarceration rates by no less than 5 percent in the first year of the award, 10 percent in each subsequent year, and 50 percent over the five-year award, and set and meet benchmarks for reducing racial and ethnic disparities.

The Vera Institute of Justice is powered by hundreds of advocates, researchers, and activists working to transform the criminal legal and immigration systems until they’re fair for all. Founded in 1961 to advocate for alternatives to money bail in New York City, Vera is now a national organization that partners with impacted communities and government leaders for change. We develop just, antiracist solutions so that money doesn’t determine freedom; fewer people are in jails, prisons, and immigration detention; and everyone is treated with dignity. Vera’s headquarters is in Brooklyn, New York, with offices in Washington, DC, New Orleans, and Los Angeles.