A Toolkit for Jail Decarceration in Your Community

In recent years, there has been growing consensus that jail incarceration is harmful and unnecessary because it causes damage to people’s stability and health and does not meaningfully reduce crime and violence. In fact, research shows that pretrial detention in jail can increase a person’s likelihood of harsher prison sentences and future system involvement.See generally Christopher M. Campbell, Ryan M. Labrecque, Michael Weinerman et al., “Gauging Detention Dosage: Assessing the Impact of Pretrial Detention on Sentencing Outcomes Using Propensity Score Modeling,” Journal of Criminal Justice 70 (2020), Article 101719; Léon Digard and Elizabeth Swavola, Justice Denied: The Harmful and Lasting Effects of Pretrial Detention (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2019), https://perma.cc/47NM-9ENL; and Paul Heaton, Sandra Mayson, and Megan Stevenson, “The Downstream Consequences of Misdemeanor Pretrial Detention,” Stanford Law Review 69 (2017), 711-794, https://perma.cc/824L-RG6M. Calls for new approaches to community safety and justice have risen from a broad range of voices, including from people directly impacted by the criminal legal system, community organizers, lawyers, government leaders, journalists, and more. Places that have heeded demands for change are beginning to see significant reductions in jail populations, showing that decarceration at the local level is possible when criminal legal system stakeholders make different choices.

The impact of jail decarceration efforts can be seen in the national data: After nearly four decades of dramatic jail population growth, the total U.S. jail population gradually dropped from a high of 785,533 in 2008 to 758,420 in 2019.Jacob Kang-Brown, Oliver Hinds, Eital Schattner-Elmaleh, and James Wallace-Lee, People in Jail 2019 (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2019), https://perma.cc/7HB9-Y8UC. This is a positive shift, but jail incarceration still affects many people: in 2018, there were more than 10.7 million bookings into local jails in the United States. Zhen Zeng, Jail Inmates in 2018 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2020), 1-2, https://perma.cc/TY3R-SEMF.

But within this national trend are two opposing trends: As urban jail populations declined, many smaller cities and rural places have expanded their carceral footprint.Jacob Kang-Brown and Ram Subramanian, Out of Sight: The Growth of Jails in Rural America (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, June 2017), 12, https://perma.cc/5QZQ-UWDN. Put differently, the progress that big cities have made in decreasing their jail populations has been almost fully offset by the jail population increase in other communities. (Although many jails decreased their populations during the COVID-19 pandemic in the first part of 2020, the numbers began to rise again in late 2020.On 2020 trends, see Jacob Kang-Brown, Chase Montagnet, and Jasmine Heiss, People in Jail and Prison in 2020 (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2021), https://perma.cc/8L5F-Z4T5. ) This means that national jail incarceration numbers remain stubbornly steady, despite some places’ reform efforts.

Why is jail decarceration playing out so differently in different places?

Because the U.S. criminal legal system is a combination of thousands of city and county systems that operate differently, appetite and willingness for change can vary widely from place to place, even among places bound by the same state laws. It also means that for widespread change to occur, many different local systems must individually enact new policies and practices.

Moreover, because no one stakeholder has absolute control over every facet of the local criminal legal system, the independent decisions of many different agencies and people all collectively contribute to who in the community ends up in jail.John Wooldredge, James Frank, Natalie Goulette, and Lawrence Travis III, “Is the Impact of Cumulative Disadvantage on Sentencing Greater for Black Defendants?” Criminology & Public Policy 14, no. 2 (2015), 187-223. As a result, it can be difficult to hold any one system stakeholder accountable when the jail population grows. Additionally, it can be difficult to determine the exact policies that are contributing most to a community’s jail growth and where the most impactful changes could be made.

However, the decentralized nature of local criminal legal systems also means that local criminal legal system stakeholders can individually choose to make decisions that contribute to transformative change within their communities, without necessarily waiting for broad consensus or formal legislative change. And because each local system is just one of thousands, there are many examples of jail decarceration work from which to learn.

Most importantly, many different people in different roles throughout the community can play an important part in working toward decarceration, no matter how small or large the jurisdiction. This toolkit defines those roles and highlights steps that anyone in a community—no matter what their role—can take to better understand their local system and help drive change. Not only can your efforts make your community a safer and more just place, but when combined with the work of other communities across the United States, they will also have a decisive impact on national efforts to end mass incarceration.

Read the Technical Guide to Jail Data Analysis