Who’s in Jail and Why

More than 3,000 jail facilities operate in the United States.Zhen Zeng and Todd Minton, Jail Inmates in 2019 (Washington, DC, Bureau of Justice Statistics [BJS], 2021), 11, https://perma.cc/W5DU-3RCR. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, those jails processed about 10 million bookings annually.Zeng and Minton, Jail Inmates in 2019, 2021, 1, https://perma.cc/W5DU-3RCR. Some people stayed for hours and others for months.Mark A. Cunniff, Jail Crowding: Understanding Jail Population Dynamics (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice [DOJ], 2002), 7, https://perma.cc/REV6-7YJX. Overall, the number of people in jail has grown exponentially over the past 40 years—from about 220,000 in 1983 to more than 750,000 in 2019.BJS, The 1983 Jail Census (Washington, DC: BJS, 1984), 1, https://perma.cc/5NCS-4JUG; and Jacob Kang-Brown, Chase Montagnet, and Jasmine Heiss, People in Jail and Prison in 2020 (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2021), 1, https://perma.cc/AER8-CVSJ.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, some jurisdictions took emergency actions to prevent the virus’s spread among incarcerated people and jail staff, which cut jail populations by an estimated 24 percent during the first half of 2020. However, these changes proved temporary; by June 2020, national jail populations were already rising. By the end of 2020, the population had rebounded by more than 50,000 people.Kang-Brown, Montagnet, and Heiss, People in Jail and Prison in 2020, 2021, 1-2.

On any given day in 2019, jails in the United States held more than 750,000 people.

Close to 70 percent of all people held in local jails have been charged with violations of drug, property, or public order laws; less than one-third have been charged with offenses that are considered violent.Wendy Sawyer and Peter Wagner, Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020 (Northampton, MA: Prison Policy Initiative, 2020), https://perma.cc/D5JL-9TSV. Unlike in prisons—where incarcerated people have been convicted of a crime—two-thirds of the people in local jails have not been found guilty of their current charges but remain incarcerated pretrial, often because they’re unable to pay even small bail amounts.Of the 734,400 people in jail on a given day, 480,700 are unconvicted. Zeng and Minton, Jail Inmates in 2019, 2021, 5. For a discussion of bail, see Léon Digard and Elizabeth Swavola, Justice Denied: The Harmful and Lasting Effects of Pretrial Detention (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2019), 2, https://perma.cc/47EN-DE8Q.

Many incarcerated people also experience added challenges like homelessness or behavioral health issues. Forty-four percent of people in jail report having at least one mental health condition.Jennifer Bronson and Marcus Berzofsky, Indicators of Mental Health Problems Reported by Prisoners and Jail Inmates, 2011-2012 (Washington, DC: BJS, 2017), 3, https://perma.cc/F9YC-URBW. And the rate of people with substance use disorders is six times as high in jail as in the community.Ram Subramanian, Ruth Delaney, Stephen Roberts et al., Incarceration’s Front Door: The Misuse of Jails in America (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2015), 13, https://perma.cc/U2WE-2W3E. People in jails have also experienced homelessness at a rate from 7.5 to 11.3 times that of the broader population.For these figures, homelessness is defined as being unhoused at any point during the previous year or, for people in jail, in the one year prior to the beginning of their current incarceration. See generally Greg A. Greenberg and Robert A. Rosenheck, “Jail Incarceration, Homelessness, and Mental Health: A National Study,” Psychiatric Services 59, no. 2 (2008), 170-177; and Applied Survey Research, 2013 San Francisco Homeless Point-in-Time Count and Survey (Sacramento, CA: Applied Survey Research, 2014), https://hsh.sfgov.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/San-Francisco-PIT-Homeless-Count-2013-Final-February-13-2014.pdf. These facts are not accidental. They’re the result of policy decisions to use enforcement and incarceration instead of treatment and services.Tony Robinson, “No Right to Rest: Police Enforcement Patterns and Quality of Life Consequences of the Criminalization of Homelessness,” Urban Affairs Review 55, no. 1 (2019), 41-73, 43-44, https://perma.cc/D5YAMLMG.

The U.S. jail population also includes disproportionately high numbers of Black and Indigenous people—they are incarcerated at rates triple and double that of white people, respectively.BJS data shows that “Hispanic” people are incarcerated at a rate of 176 per 100,000 compared to 184 per 100,000 residents for white people. Zeng and Minton, Jail Inmates in 2019, 2021, 4. However, the criminal legal system’s categorization of Latinx people in jail data is fraught, and an unknown number of Latinx people are recorded as “white,” if ethnicity is recorded at all. Ram Subramanian, Kristine Riley, and Chris Mai, Divided Justice: Trends in Black and White Jail Incarceration, 1990-2003 (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2018), 26, https://www.vera.org/downloads/publications/Divided-Justice-full-report.pdf. These disparities result from policymaking that has consistently, and at times intentionally, targeted Black and Indigenous people for punishment.For more on racial disparities in the criminal legal system, see Elizabeth Hinton, LeShae Henderson, and Cindy Reed, An Unjust Burden: The Disparate Treatment of Black Americans in the Criminal Justice System (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2018), https://perma.cc/8CLL-XSSM; and Ruth Delaney, Ram Subramanian, Alison Shames, and Nicholas Turner, Reimagining Prison (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2018), https://perma.cc/UNR7-RUD6. And women are being incarcerated at accelerating rates. Since 2008, the number of women in jails has increased by 11.4 percent, despite an overall jail population decrease of 6 percent during the same time period.This compares to a 9 percent decrease for men. Zeng and Minton, Jail Inmates in 2019, 2021, 5.

Public Safety and the Costs of Jail

Put simply, jails don’t make us safer. Research shows increased incarceration has historically contributed less to falling crime rates than broader social and economic factors have.Oliver Roeder, Lauren-Brooke Eisen, and Julia Bowling, What Caused the Crime Decline? (New York: Brennan Center for Justice, 2015), 4, https://perma.cc/42WL-MG9H; and Pew Center on the States, State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons (Washington, DC: Pew Charitable Trusts, 2011), 5-6, 12-13, https://perma.cc/L6P4-NXXX. And during the three-decade drop in crime since the 1990s, several large states decreased their incarcerated populations while experiencing declines in crime.These states are California, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Texas. Roeder, Eisen, and Bowling, What Caused the Crime Decline?, 2015, 3, 4, 8, 15, and 28. Even as shootings and homicides increased in 2020, evidence suggests that decreased jail populations were not to blame; instead, some experts have pointed to destabilized access to public resources during COVID-19 lockdowns, changes in law enforcement behavior, and an unsustainable dependence on police and punishment as key contributors to the spike in violence.Experts are still working to understand the complex factors driving the increase in homicides during 2020. See for example Derek Thompson, “Why America’s Great Crime Decline Is Over,” Atlantic, March 24, 2021, https://perma.cc/4HW6-E2CW. Early evidence appears to rule out one factor: reduced jail populations. For more, see CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance, Jail Decarceration and Public Safety: Preliminary Findings from the Safety and Justice Challenge (New York: CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance, 2021), https://perma.cc/BY39-Z48R; and the JFA Institute, The Impact of COVID-19 on Crime, Arrests, and Jail Populations: An Expansion on the Preliminary Assessment (Denver, CO: JFA Institute, 2021), 15, https://perma.cc/2UDW-QGMS. And jail won’t fix it either: other research shows increased use of incarceration can actually increase crime, especially in communities with already high incarceration rates.Todd R. Clear, “The Effects of High Imprisonment Rates on Communities,” Crime and Justice 37 (2008), 97-132; Francis T. Cullen, Cheryl Lero Jonson, and Daniel S. Nagin, “Prisons Do Not Reduce Recidivism: The High Cost of Ignoring Science,” Prison Journal 91, no. 3 supplement (2011), 52-58, https://perma.cc/6VYQ-AANU; and Danielle Sered, Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and the Road to Repair (New York: The New Press, 2021), 67.

What’s more, incarceration fails to address the issues marginalized communities have identified as important for their safety.Katie Buitrago, Amy Rynell, and Sandra Tuttle, Cycle of Risk: The Intersection of Poverty, Violence, and Trauma in Illinois (Chicago: Heartland Alliance, 2017), https://perma.cc/3QK8-AMJS. Some jurisdictions have implemented “reforms” to reduce jail use, but many approaches ultimately increased the role of criminal legal system agencies and used the threat of incarceration to coerce compliance with mandated programming, adding to the approaches' harms. Better paths exist: agencies can contribute space and money to build and sustain community-based services people can access without arrest or incarceration.

This approach is beneficial even when interpersonal violence occurs.

A 2015 Brennan Center for Justice analysis showed that increased incarceration had little to no effect on violent crime rates from 1990 to 2013.Roeder, Eisen, and Bowling, What Caused the Crime Decline?, 2015, 3, 8, 15, and 28. And other studies show that spending time behind bars can have “criminogenic” effects, increasing the likelihood that someone will be reincarcerated.See for example Cullen, Jonson, and Nagin, “Prisons Do Not Reduce Recidivism,” 2011, 52-58; and Sered, Until We Reckon, 2021, 67. Responding to individual occurrences of interpersonal violence with jail instead of addressing the underlying causes of cyclical violence not only fails to produce safety, but also perpetuates harm to people and communities.

The Harms of Jail Incarceration

Group Created with Sketch. Read More