America relies on incarceration more than any other country, and the problem begins in local jails. With nearly 12 million local jail admissions every year, our jail populations have reached crisis proportions. This has devastating impacts on individuals, families, neighborhoods, and the economy. Research shows that even a small amount of time spent in jail before trial can increase a defendant’s chance of receiving more time behind bars and is associated with future criminal behavior.
Local jails are meant to hold people serving short sentences and to detain those awaiting court proceedings who are a danger to public safety or a flight risk. But they have come to hold many who are neither. Today, the majority of people in jail have not been convicted of a crime and are presumed to be innocent. Despite the country growing safer—with violent and property crime down by nearly half since their peak—annual admissions to jails nearly doubled between 1983 and 2013. And 75% of those in jail, whether they are serving sentences or are being held before trial, are behind bars for nonviolent traffic, property, drug, or public order offenses.
The overuse of jail has not affected everyone equally. Many jails have become warehouses for people with mental health and substance abuse issues. In addition to the rise of opioid addiction in the country, serious mental illness affects one-in-six men and one-in-three women in jail. Rather than being directed to the care they need, these people are swept into jail on minor charges and languish behind bars in harmful environments, making them more likely to commit a new offense when released. Additionally, jail has disproportionately impacted communities of color—while African-Americans and Hispanics together make up 30% of the general population, they account for 51% of the jail population.
While there is no single solution or quick fix to these problems, change is possible. In contrast to state and federal prisons, jails are operated by cities and counties, and their populations are largely determined by local policies, practices, and agency cultures. Local leaders involved in the Safety and Justice Challenge are proving it is possible for jurisdictions to rethink local justice systems from the ground up with forward-looking, smart solutions that safely reduce jail populations and eliminate ineffective, inefficient, and unfair practices. Beginning and sustaining these reform efforts requires data-driven strategies informed by the community.
A data visualization helps explain the surprising trend that small counties are the places where jails have grown the most, and are where nearly half of our nation’s jail inmates are now held.
StoryCorps launched the Justice Project as an initiative to collect, preserve, and amplify the stories of people whose lives have been impacted by mass incarceration and the justice system nationwide. These personal conversations reveal the complexities