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Justice Department launches hub to help jails improve conditions and safety


WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has launched a new program to assist jail administrators across the country improve safety and standards.

The Jails and Justice Support Center (JJSC) has a mission of assisting jails “in creating and sustaining safe, humane, and effective environments” by working directly with jails to provide training and technical assistance, as well as providing referrals to other federal programs.

Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, the No. 3 official at the Justice Department, told NBC News in an interview that the department felt it was important to partner with law enforcement figures in the field and that the initiative is a reflection of what sheriffs and jail administrators said they need. Jails are “at the front lines” of some of society’s most difficult issues, Gupta said, adding that the smallest jails often need the most assistance.

The Justice Department has the ability to investigate individual jails when they find patterns and practices that violate constitutional rights. But the Jails and Justice Support Center is akin to preventative medicine, aimed at trying to proactively help jail administrators deal with issues on the front end, rather than investigating them on the back end.

The project is modeled after the Collaborative Reform Initiative — a DOJ effort launched during the Obama administration in the wake of the unrest in cities like Ferguson, Missouri, after the 2014 death of Michael Brown and in Baltimore after the 2015 killing of Freddie Gray — as well as the Law Enforcement Knowledge Lab, which DOJ launched last year.

Gupta, a progressive civil rights attorney who received support from major law enforcement organizations during her 2021 nomination, announced the launch of the hub at an event at the Arlington County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia on Wednesday. Ahead of the launch, Gupta told NBC News that a comprehensive approach in collaboration with jail administrators would be most effective and help deal with a variety of issues faced by law enforcement, including the recruitment and retention crisis that particularly affects some of the lower-paying law enforcement jobs at jails.

Gupta said what they heard from the field was that jails needed “real-time best practices and technical assistance.” Jail leaders and DOJ have the same goal, she said, “which is safe facilities where the dignity, humanity, constitutional rights of everyone — and that covers people who are incarcerated, the staff, people who are visiting jails — are upheld and honored.”

It’s similar to the work DOJ has done on policing, Gupta said.

“There will be a lot of learning from consent decrees, but also from sheriffs that are doing very innovative work around substance use disorders, use of Medicaid dollars to better help transition people who are leaving their facilities into community-based treatment, addressing the needs of people with behavioral and mental health disorders and practices that keep staff and incarcerated people safe,” she said. “Sheriffs are the first to tell you that they have been saddled with some of these really difficult social problems and that jails are at the frontlines of some of these difficult issues.”

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.