Publication: Corrections Today
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 17495
ISSN: 01902563
Journal code: PCOR

Practitioners have found many uses for the new core jail standards in the two years since they were issued. The American Correctional Association (ACA) Standards Committee approved the Core Jail Standards, First Edition in August 2009 and they were available to the field in January 2010. These were the first national "minimum" jail standards to be issued by any organization or agency.

The National Institute of Corrections (NIC) sent printed copies of the standards to each of the nation's 3,200 jails in 2010. NIC, along with the American Jail Association (AJA) and the National Sheriffs' Association (NSA), were instrumental in the development of the standards.

In August 2011, the ACA Board of Governors passed a resolution that calls for awarding accreditation to agencies that comply with the core standards, rather than the certification that was previously being awarded.

Uses have been varied. For example:

* The Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Department of the Interior, used the core jail standards as the starting point for developing new guidelines that will apply to all Indian jails;

* The Tennessee Corrections Institute is using the core jail standards as a resource as it reviews and revises the standards for Tennessee jails; and

* Several Michigan sheriffs are using the core jail standards as the foundation for a peer auditing system that is under development.

What Are the Core Jail Standards?

The core jail standards are a new set of standards developed and maintained by ACA to address unmet needs in the detention field. They are a smaller offshoot of ACA's full Performance-Based Standards for Adult Local Detention Facilities, Fourth Edition (ALDF), which have provided the basis for ACA accreditation for many years.

Traditionally, ACA standards have been developed within a form and structure that responds to three primary criteria:

* They must be legally defensible - providing guidance for jail operations at or above constitutional minimums established by the courts;

* They must be flexible - allowing agencies to use varied ways to achieve compliance with the intent of each standard; and

* They must promote advanced professional practice - defining what should be done, not just what must be done.

The new core jail standards only encompass the first two of these criteria, by focusing on minimum requirements to operate a constitutional jail. The ALDF standards extend further, to the third criterion of advanced practice; they exceed the minimum requirements comprised by most state jail standards and defined in court cases to measure the constitutionality of facilities and operations.

ACA's ALDF standards have evolved during the past 40 years through four phases of development (see Figure 1).

The core jail standards are especially useful for:

* Jails located in states that have no state jail standards;

* Jails whose state's standards do not address all of the requirements for operating a constitutional jail; and

* Standards writers who want to have a reliable description of basic minimum requirements for operating a constitutional jail.

What Makes a Standard "Core"?

ACA's performance-based ALDF standards were the starting point for drafting the minimum core jail standards. The ACA Standards Committee required the new core standards to be drawn from existing ALDF standards in order to reduce confusion in the field and to ensure consistency between the two ACA publications.

Each ALDF standard includes five components:

* Performance Standard - the condition to be achieved and maintained;

* Outcome Measures - quantifiable data for evaluating the extent to which the desired condition has been achieved;

* Expected Practices - specific actions and activities that should be implemented to reach compliance with the performance standard;

* Protocols - written tools that provide direction to staff, such as policies, procedures, post orders and training curricula; and

* Process Indicators - sources of evidence that the expected practices are being properly and consistently implemented according to the protocols.

"Expected practices" are similar to a traditional standard as they appeared before the standards were rewritten in the performance-based format. Figure 2 provides an example of an ALDF standard.

In 2008, the first working group, comprised of jail administrators and sheriffs, reviewed the ALDF standards and identified the elements that described the operations and conditions that are necessary to operate a constitutional jail. The working group reviewed the "expected practice" language from each ALDF standard for its suitability to be carried over as a core standard - in whole, in part, or in principle. Group members examined each expected practice and tried to find the practice, or portion of a practice, that represented minimum requirements. One of their benchmarks was to ask, "Would a jail find itself in trouble with the courts if it did not comply with X practice?"

The working group often found that one or two sentences of an expected practice "hit the nail on the head." This language was extracted and provided the basis for the core jail expected practice. In this way, the group extracted the "core" language from the larger ALDF expected practice. Figure 3 provides an example of the way the core jail standards relate to their ALDF counterparts.

Reaching a consensus on what was "core" required tapping into the substantial experience evident around the table every time a committee met. Three other types of resources were always at the table:

* Performance-Based Standards for Adult Local Detention Facilities, Fourth Edition;

* Mandatory minimum jail standards from several states; and

* Caselaw, primarily from Community Resource Services Inc.'s comprehensive Caselaw Catalog,1 summarizing more than 8,500 federal court decisions that address issues in detention and corrections.

ACA Developing New Tools

ACA is developing several new tools to help managers implement and comply with the core jail standards:

* Outcome measures have been drafted for each of the performance standards;

* An Excel-based program will make it easier to define outcome measures, to calculate them and to use them to identify trends (see Figure 4);

* A compilation of federal court decisions that underpin the core jail standards will help jail managers understand and communicate the related legal issues; and

* A "how to" manual will explain the standards and provide guidance for agencies that want to move toward compliance.

Using Outcome Measures to Improve Operations and Standards

"Outcome measures" are a key component of ACA's performance-based template. These measures are designed to focus on whether operations are effective. The outcome measures are tied to each performance standard, providing insights into whether the desired conditions are being achieved and maintained. Figure 4 provides graphs showing outcome measures associated with core performance standard IA.

The graphs in Figure 4 suggest success in some areas, and raise concerns in others:

* N1 identifies an increase in the rate of inmate illnesses compared with the number of admissions;

* N2 shows a similar trend when illnesses are compared to the ADP of the jail;

* N3 is encouraging in that is shows a marked decrease in the rate of staff worker compensation claims compared to the number of full-time equivalent employees;

* N4 is also good news in that rate of sanitation or health code violations compared with ADP fell steadily from 2008 to 2010;

* N5 suggests that certain types of inmate grievances are being validated (upheld) are a lower rate, also good news;

* N6 identifies a decrease in the rate of inmate injuries due to fires when compared with ADP; and

* N9 raises concerns about the increase in the rate of staff injuries compared with the number of FTE employees.

What do these findings mean, and what should jail managers do about them? In many instances, operations appear to be effective at achieving the conditions sought in the performance standards. But in some cases, operations are not producing the desired results. Managers should investigate operations to determine the potential causes of the trends that are going in the wrong direction, and use the findings to make improvements whenever possible. In some cases, however, there may be explanations that will reduce concerns.

What should ACA do about the findings? ACA's response to the outcome measure findings should be implemented in three ways:

* If the agency is accredited, ACA should monitor the findings annually and pose questions to the agency when concerns are identified by the trends;

* ACA auditors should also review the outcome measures before visiting the site, and should discuss the findings and satisfy themselves that the agency is responding to all identified concerns; and

* The ACA Standards Committee should examine findings from all accredited agencies - if many or most of the agencies are having trouble achieving the conditions that are sought, the committee should investigate the possibility that the expected practices are flawed and develop proposed revisions. In this way, outcome measures provide the Standards Committee with "feedback" on the extent to which the expected practices are working.

ACA needs to help agencies analyze the outcome measures to improve jail operations, and be prepared to revise expected practices when the results in the field suggest that the practices are not as effective as expected.


The jail profession has responded with interest to the core jail standards. Several jails have been accredited using the core jail standards, with many more working with ACA to prepare for accreditation reviews. NIC has provided a copy of the core jail standards to every city and county jail and the standards have found practical uses at the local level, providing jail managers with needed guidance.

The core jail standards represent a new paradigm for ACA. This is the first time that minimum standards have been written. ACA will continue to provide professional standards to all of the disciplines that comprise the field of corrections. While the ACA professional standards continue to evolve, the association has now provided all jails, regardless of size, with a timely and accessible resource.


1 See: Miller, Rod and Donald J. Walter. 2010. Detention and corrections caselaw catalog, 22nd edition. Gettysburg, Pa.: CRS Inc.; or

Author affiliation:

Rod Miller is the founder of Community Resource Services Inc., a nonprofit organization established in 1972 that provides services to clients at the local, regional, state and national levels. He can be reached at (717) 338-9100 or For more information, visit

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