America relies on incarceration more than any other country, and the problem begins in local jails. Jails hold 731,000 people on any given day, with 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.
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.
The overuse of jail has not affected everyone equally. Many jails have become warehouses for those too poor to post bail or too sick to receive help from often limited community resources. People with mental illness in particular are often swept into jail on minor charges, rather than being directed to the care they need. And jailing 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.
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. Criminal justice stakeholders such as law enforcement officials, prosecutors, and judges have the ability to make significant reductions in the number of people behind bars and the racial and ethnic disparities within them. Key to beginning and sustaining reform efforts is an understanding of how jail use has changed, and what impacts this growth has had on local jail on individuals, communities, and the economy.
A deep-dive into poverty and a culture of local incarceration in one Rust Belt town.
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.