Johnson County Advances in Ranking Among Lowest Incarceration Rates


In October 2013, an assessment of the Johnson County jail average daily incarceration rate showed a steady decline over the past four years from an average of 162 down to a daily average of 139.

On 12 May 2014, it was reported that the average daily incarceration rate for Johnson County has continued to drop and is now about 127.

The population of Johnson County is about 136,000 people, so this means our rate of incarceration has gone from 102 per 100,000 (in October 2013) down to 93 per 100,000 (as of May 2014).

Looking Outside the U.S.

The average incarceration rate for the U.S. is 716 people per 100,000. So, we must look beyond the U.S. for comparisons and insights into how we might continue to improve our ranking.

As we improve, compared with global rankings of countries, the competition gets stiff. We’re now up against countries like Switzerland, Norway, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands, and Iceland. These are global leaders who invest heavily in education, social programs, and infrastructure.

If we want to compete with these global leaders, our spending needs to look like theirs, and in fact, it does. As a county, we have invested heavily in community partners that raise the quality of living for everyone. So, on a smaller scale, our investment in social programs is similar to that of these other world leaders, and the lowered incarceration rate is an expected outcome. The payback in terms of Return on Investment (ROI) is huge. People involved in the local justice system are currently exploring other ways we can improve our ranking.

Making Sense of the Data

There are 68 countries with incarceration rates lower than Johnson County — with various reasons for their success. Certainly every country has its own unique strengths and much to offer the world community, so the following is not meant to disparage or single out any particular country. In regard to lower incarceration rates there are a few factors that seem to be most influential.

  • Instability. In countries that are politically unstable and economically in crisis, we find high crime rates and low incarceration rates due to a lack of policing or skewed government priorities, such as arresting people for political or religious reasons. There are typically travel advisories for these areas, and vacationers are warned not to visit these dangerous regions.
  • Intolerance. Some countries have lower incarceration rates due to having a different approach to justice. For example, someone breaking a law, or violating local/religious customs, might get stoned or have a public execution. This keeps incarceration rates low, yet doesn’t foster an atmosphere of tolerance.
  • Investment. There’s a third category of countries that are stable, economically prosperous, and where there is a great degree of tolerance and freedom. In these countries, the ratio of police to population is relatively low. The partial list mentioned previously offer us some examples: Switzerland, Norway, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands, and Iceland. The key to their success is data driven outcomes-based investing in the future through education, social services, and other social programs. These are predictable, secure, high-yield investments that societies can make in their future, and that’s what these countries are doing.

What’s Next

What strategies can help us continue to improve our ranking? Here are a few to consider.

  • Jail Alternatives. Our current County Attorney, Janet Lyness, has helped to establish, promote, and/or revitalize ten jail diversion and alternatives programs. We need to continue investing in these and expanding them. Through the principle of continual improvement process practices, we should look at how we might enhance these programs.
  • Expanded Courthouse Facilities. There’s been an ongoing discussion about the need to expand our courthouse facilities which are currently unsafe, non-compliant, and inadequate. A courthouse annex proposal is now being considered, with community feedback requested as a way of crowd-sourcing the design of the facility. Our current County Attorney, Janet Lyness, as well as John Zimmerman (running for County Attorney) are both in favor of expanding our courthouse facilities. Providing timely hearings/trials and equal access to justice services is essential. Having an expanded courthouse facility will help expand and enhance the existing jail alternatives and diversion programs.
  • Additional Justice Services. There’s a long list of justice services not being offered simply due to limited space. It’s important to place a priority on offering these services once the courthouse facilities are expanded.
  • Community Partners. A continued and possibly increased and expanded commitment to our community partners will be essential.
  • Discretion. John Zimmerman is known for being outspoken about the use of reasonable discretion as a tool to help reduce incarceration rates. In the same way that a police officer might give someone a warning, the use of discretion can be used in a measured way throughout the justice system. For example, at present, the Department of Justice is supporting legislation that will give “federal judges more discretion in applying mandatory minimums to certain drug offenders.” (source) So, there may be some ways we can make more full use of discretion to reduce our incarceration rate.
  • Community Policing. Great strides have already been made in the area of community policing, but more energy needs to be invested in these initiatives that create positive collaborative relationships between law enforcement and local community neighborhoods.
  • Community Involvement. We need to make sure that our community is welcoming and inclusive when it comes to helping people get back on track who may have made bad choices in the past. By ensuring that housing, education, jobs, and opportunities are available, we can made sure that positive choices are more appealing than the alternatives.


Please feel free to provide any comments or suggestions to be incorporated in the document above, or included below.

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