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Frequent Fliers: Small Crimes, Bigger Problems

By: Kristine Alarcon

“Frequent fliers” is a small group of people who spend their time continuously in and out of jail. They are often incarcerated for nonviolent crimes instead of receiving the help they need. “Frequent fliers” may face homelessness, severe mental illness, or even substance abuse.

The American Journal of Public Health reports that “at least one person was jailed 66 times during the six-year period” in New York City jails (Davis O’Brien). Most of the time, the charges were small crimes or misdemeanors. Criminals charged with felony assault, rape, murder, or other violent crimes made up less than 1.2% of those frequently incarcerated.

The issue can be problematic as some “frequent fliers” are charged with violent crimes when they only committed misdemeanors.

The American Journal of Public Health recently published a study that “compared the 800 most frequently incarcerated and their arrest records over a six year’s time span against a control group of the same size” (Davis O’Brien).

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The individuals who were more likely to be arrested several times were two times more likely to have a severe mental illness, required medical care while in jail, and be older. A majority of them were also homeless and suffered from substance abuse.

After their arrest, these individuals are released from jail only to return within a few weeks.

The study also highlights the high cost of keeping “frequent fliers” out of and ending their regular cycle in the criminal-justice system.

Many experts and officials emphasize that incarcerating these individuals is not effective or efficient as medical treatment is expensive. Even if “frequent fliers” did receive treatment, it would not keep the public safe since the treatment may not improve the long-term health for the incarcerated.

Incarceration is not a means to aid in improving behavioral health issues. A former police officer and associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Jon M. Shane, says that many police officers would not like to deal with the mental-health community.

Even though “frequent fliers” only make up a small part of the incarcerated population, Administrative Judge Matthew D’Emic sees the need to change the policy regarding incarceration cycle for them. He feels there should be a focus on the reason these individuals return to jail even if they are released into a safe community.

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Clinical director of Brooklyn’s mental-health court diversion programs for the nonprofit Education & Assistance Corp., Virginia Barber-Rioja says the city is trying to focus on the issues surrounding mental illness, such as lack of community connections or homelessness. However, there are not enough resources for housing or social services that can help.

Since last Fall, Mayor Bill de Blasio is initiating measures to help the mentally ill. Some measures include providing permanent housing for individuals with behavioral issues, substance-abuse, or mental health, screening of defendants, and new training for police and correctional officers.


Kristine Alarcon is certified in Sterile Processing and Distribution and is pursing a Masters in Public Health at Drexel University. She is a Social Media Assistant at Cancer InCytes Magazine.



Davis O’Brien, Rebecca. “Portrait of the Frequently Jailed: Have Big Problems, Do Minor Crimes.” Wall Street Journal. Retrieved on September 18, 2015.

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