WASHINGTON. — Washington -- America's counties and cities could empty one third to one half of the inmates out of their jails, save a ton of money and do little to imperil the public safety.
No matter what sheriffs, police chiefs and assorted local politicians claim, only one-quarter or less of our jail cell blocks hold dangerous criminals.
Our local jails, with costs of $15,000 a ''bed'' upward, are filled mostly with homeless vagrants and petty thieves, drunken driving offenders, domestic abusers and small-time delinquents locked up for technical probation offenses. Many inmates are alcoholic or mentally ill.
Above all, jails incarcerate poor people. Many are being held because they can't produce the $250 or $500 or $1,000 they need to get a bond bailsman to spring them.
In Clarke County Detention Center in Las Vegas, Randall Shelden and William Brown of the University of Nevada discovered almost half the inmates 500 to 700 on any given day were being held not because they were dangerous or unlikely to appear for their trials, but ''simply because they were too poor to get out.''
Jails are serving, charge Mr. Shelden and Mr. Brown in Crime & Delinquency magazine, ''as a modern-day version of the 18th and 19th century poorhouse.''
It's not unusual, says Georgetown University's William Chambliss, for jail inmates to be held for ''trespassing.'' One example: homeless black men seeking food in fast-food restaurants.
Over 400,000 people are in our local jails, but the jail overcrowding that politicians bewail is ''a phony crisis,'' says Jerome Miller, director of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Center on Institutions and Corrections.
Any sheriff in America could lower his jail population by one-third to one-half, says Mr. Miller, by such steps as halting harassment arrests of the homeless, lowering bond payments and releasing more people on their own recognizance. Very few of these detainees, he suggests, would skip town. Typically, they and their lives are just too disorganized.
Why don't sheriffs then do the obvious? There's a pretty obvious political explanation: ''Jails are run by sheriffs,'' notes Mr. Miller. ''Getting a constantly bigger chunk of the budget enhances their political power.
''They're always running for office, and their big guard staffs help them get campaign workers. There are ways to get around civil service. They can sound tough on law and order, constantly trotting out horrendous incidents.''
But despite all the money the sheriffs get to hold criminals, says Mr. Miller, ''they end up putting a lot of lightweight offenders -- small-time misdemeanants -- behind bars.''
Public defenders are typically so overworked and part of the system, says Mr. Miller, that any truly cost-conscious county or city would benefit from a new system of publicly funded pretrial advocates or representatives for arrestees. This group would work independently of the sheriff and prosecutor with their vested interest in holding more people.
A companion idea is a nonprofit bonding program with advocates negotiating with judges to issue bonds provided defendants agree to such conditions as being home by 9 each evening, going to AA meetings or reporting daily to a job. Cumulatively, such steps could save immense sums in jail costs.
Jail reform won't come easy, though. Clarke County officials told Messrs. Shelden and Brown the jail there was filled because of rising crime and increasing population. But the researchers found Las Vegas' serious crime rate had actually declined in the '80s. And that all it took was opening of a new jail to send prisoner counts spiraling.
Early in 1984, Clarke County had been averaging 289 prisoners a day. Then the new jail opened. In short order, attendance soared to 679 prisoners on an average day. By 1986, the figure was up to 972; by 1988, it was 1,260. Even counting heavy population growth, the incarceration rate (per 100,000 people) tripled.
What was happening? Arrests for vagrancy, domestic violence, drug sale or possession, traffic violations and driving while intoxicated soared. The authors discovered Las Vegas police were routinely ''rounding up'' homeless people and locking them up in the county jail to please casino owners.
Probation and parole officers were reportedly encouraged to ''get violators.'' Result: hundreds of arrests, often on minor technicalities, probationers often waiting 60, 90 days or longer for hearings.
Police also ''overbooked'' -- threw multiple instead of single charges -- at arrestees they believed had (in cop parlance) ''flunked the attitude test'' or been ''obstinate'' or ''disrespectful.'' The number of charges per arrestee rose 50 percent during the '80s, each extra charge making the accused come up with $250 more for the bail bondsman. The cops, in effect, were setting the bail that arrestees needed to be set free.
Only 38 percent of all Clarke County bookings resulted in convictions, strong evidence of a system gone amok.
And the Clarke County excesses, asserts Mr. Miller, are repeated in significant degree in jails across the nation. The result is that we jail high numbers of the people criminologists variously call America's ''rabble class'' or ''truly disadvantaged'' -- a group that turns out to be preponderantly black, male and poor.
Renaissance Europe did the same to ''witches,'' anything to get them out of sight. If we're not careful, we may be as callous, and just as harshly judged by history.
Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.