By Max Ehrenfreund

The Washington Post

The first of the convoys left Albuquerque, New Mexico, in August 2013. A cruiser would take the lead, followed by a few buses and vans and another cruiser at the rear. For more than a year, they ferried inmates between an overcrowded jail on the city’s outskirts and another facility with empty cells, more than 800 miles away.

The jail in Albuquerque, like many others around the country, didn’t have enough room. Authorities were spending $35,000 per day to house inmates outside the county.

“This was something that had to be done,” said Capt. Ray Gonzales of the Metropolitan Detention Center in Albuquerque.

Then, things changed. The jail inmate numbers plummeted. The convoys stopped. Bernalillo County, which includes Albuquerque, now incarcerates 38 percent fewer people than it did in 2013.

Jails such as Albuquerque’s have gone almost unmentioned in the bipartisan discussion about the huge number of Americans behind bars, which has largely focused on prisons.

Last week, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 46 prisoners, called on Congress to reform prison sentences and became the first sitting president to visit a federal penitentiary.

Sentencing reform would take enormous legislative effort, but the effect on the incarcerated population as a whole would be small compared with what has already happened in some jails around the country and what could happen at many more.

Jails might look similar to prisons from the outside, but the differences are crucial to understanding the challenges of incarceration in America.

The federal government or states run prisons, while most jails are run by local governments. Prisons house convicted criminals who are serving their sentences, while about three in five jail inmates have yet to go to trial.

The scope of the jail system is much larger, and because the inmates in jails are less likely to be dangerous criminals, political progress may be more feasible.

“Jails really are where the action is in terms of addressing mass incarceration,” said Cherise Fanno Burdeen. She is the executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute, a research organization.

That’s what officials have discovered in New Orleans, Hampden County, Massachusetts, and Mesa County, Colorado, all places that saw rapid reductions in jail populations. “That type of decline could never happen in a state prison,” said Christian Henrichson, an analyst at the Vera Institute of Justice.”It’s just, for all purposes, not mathematically possible.”

The population in American prisons began to increase in the 1970s when Congress and state legislatures started passing harsher sentencing laws in response to rising rates of violent crimes. As criminals were convicted, they stayed in prison longer, and the number of prisoners rose.

Taking state and federal prisoners together, just under half have been convicted of violent crimes. Such crimes are rare, but violent criminals serve longer sentences and make up a larger share of the population as a result.

Meanwhile, the population in jail increased too, more than doubling between 1983 and 2007.

Unlike those in prison, most people in jail haven’t been convicted. Many others are mentally ill, one result of a shift away from housing patients in large hospitals.

Although jails house around 745,000 people at any given time, millions of Americans - there’s no precise estimate - enter and exit the country’s jails every year. The average inmate’s stay in a jail is 23 days compared with roughly two years in state prisons.

“You have a lot more people touched by the jail system than by the prison system,” said Jesse Jannetta, a scholar at the Urban Institute.

Politicians in both parties have suggested reducing prison terms for minor offenses.

But these efforts would affect a small number of prisoners. Many prisoners were convicted of more serious crimes, and they wouldn’t be eligible. In jails, there are far more inmates who haven’t committed acts of violence.

In fact, evidence is mounting that reducing the number of jail inmates can make the public safer. Researchers have found that defendants who are detained in jail become more likely to commit additional offenses. Even a few days in jail can be devastating. A student who misses a few classes because she’s behind bars might have to drop out for a semester, and a busboy who misses just one shift might lose his job.

Those stints appear especially risky for the mentally ill. The suicide rate in prisons is only slightly higher than that in the general population, but the rate in jails is more than three times as high.

Bail is a component of the courts that dates at least to biblical times.

But critics say that bail puts harmless defendants behind bars because they can’t pay while allowing dangerous criminals with financial resources to go free until their trial.

“If you think about really significant criminal organizations and individuals, they can meet many of the conditions that are placed on them,” said former New Jersey attorney general Anne Milgram. The state’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, signed into law a change in bail policy last year.

New Jersey’s law establishes a system similar to one set up in 2011 in Kentucky, where judges use a formula to estimate the odds that defendants will flee or commit other crimes before their cases go to trial. The formula uses actuarial data, specifically a defendant’s age and criminal history.

New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Toledo, Ohio, and other cities also plan to emulate Kentucky’s system.

Nick Wachinski, who until recently was the executive director of the American Bail Coalition, a trade group, argued that commercial bail is an effective and inexpensive way to ensure that defendants show up to court.

“This is something that we’ve been doing as an industry now for decades. The record of performance is tried and true and proven,” Wachinski said, while acknowledging some changes would be beneficial.

Sometimes, reducing the jail population is as simple as getting officials from different agencies to compare notes. Coordination is a common problem in this country’s fragmented, adversarial criminal justice system, said Milgram.

The warden doesn’t decide who enters the jail or when they leave, and the people who make those decisions are used to seeing each other as rivals. Police and public defenders don’t always trust each other. The data necessary to understand how a jail works aren’t all kept at one agency.

In Bernalillo County, the state funds and operates the courts while local officials manage the jail. State and county officials hadn’t been talking to each other.

“There was a lot of distrust, and animosity to some extent,” recalled Lisa Simpson, a lawyer whom Bernalillo County appointed to help reduce the jail population.

Once Simpson and her colleagues took a close look at jail and court records, they realized that probationers and suspects in minor crimes were filling up many of the cells.

The county government paid more judges to hear probation hearings in the state-run courts. And the prosecutor’s office hired an additional assistant district attorney to handle minor offenses. With the extra manpower, the courts began to vacate the jail. The guards have now closed a subsection for maintenance.