First of Its Kind Look at 2019 Jail Data Reveals Urgent Need to Address Mass Incarceration in Smaller Cities & Rural Counties

Jail data, collected by the Vera Institute of Justice with support from, fills a critical information gap

NEW YORK, NY – The nation’s local jails are a huge and consequential component of mass incarceration. Most people in jail have not been convicted of the crime they’re charged with, and many are only behind bars because they can’t afford to pay bail. Others are being detained on civil, not criminal, matters, such as unpaid child support, fines and fees, or immigration charges. While our nation has made strides reducing the national prison population - a bipartisan effort - the number of people in jail, by contrast, is on the rise.

Federal data on jail incarceration has been increasingly delayed, but advocacy and policymaking happens in real time. The last nationwide jail census was conducted in 2013, and the federal government’s most recent estimate of the U.S. jail population is for 2017. To understand jail trends in 2019, gave $4M in funding to the Vera Institute of Justice’s In Our Backyards project, followed by 12 Fellows to develop tools for Vera to collect, normalize, and report on public jail population data from hundreds of state and local government websites.

Today Vera is releasing a report, People in Jails in 2019, which shares insights from this data. The national trends are clear: large cities like Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia are reducing jail populations, but over the last several years, rural counties and smaller cities have been sending more people to jail, driving an increase in the nation’s total jail population. The recent rise in jail incarceration underscores Vera’s previous findings about the growing incarceration crisis in smaller cities and rural counties and reveals the urgent need to address mass incarceration everywhere.

Key findings include:

  • Jail incarceration has been rising nationally since 2015. At midyear 2019, there were an estimated 758,400 people in local jails, up 13,200 people (a 1.8 percent increase) from midyear 2017, the most recent available federal data.
  • This is the largest number of people in jail since midyear 2009, and a total increase of 31,000 people since the recent low in 2015 (a 4.3 percent increase).
  • Between 2013 and 2019, jail populations grew 27 percent in rural counties and 7 percent in small and mid-sized metropolitan areas. During the same period, jail populations declined 18 percent in large urban counties and are down 1 percent in the surrounding suburban counties.
  • As a result of these diverging trends, rural counties’ jail incarceration rates were more than double those of urban counties by mid-year 2019.

How we brought this data to life - Vera’s Jail Population Project and Fellowship

Vera’s mission is to urgently build and improve justice systems that ensure fairness, promote safety, and strengthen is committed to advancing inclusion and justice for all and supports organizations that are using data science and innovative new approaches to address racial bias and inequity in the United States, particularly in the criminal justice system. So, to support Vera’s work, committed $4M in 2017 and paired Vera with 12 Fellows in 2018, who did six months of full-time, pro bono work to help surface trends and draw actionable insights about jail populations across the United States. There are thousands of local jails and data recording and reporting practices vary widely. Now, Vera’s Jail Population Project (JPP) is an automatically updated database of jail population data for hundreds of counties across the country. This is a first-of its-kind software that takes jail data and standardizes it into a format that enables information integration and data comparison across jails.

The Fellows worked with Oliver Hinds, Senior Data Scientist at Vera, to develop the JPP system, which automatically collects publicly available web-based data from state and local government websites, normalizes the source information into a consistent data model, and centralizes the data into a single datastore. The Fellows extended the Recidiviz criminal justice data platform to support the collection of jails data.

The system currently contains the total jail population for more than 900 counties, which is the source of the data for People in Jail in 2019, and more-granular data for a subsample of jails that includes disaggregated jail population data by gender, race, bond, and charge. This data has been at the center of Vera’s work to inform policymakers and the public about the acceleration of jail growth in smaller cities and rural counties.

Jail data of this quality, breadth, and timeliness has never been collected before. The success of JPP was only possible because of the amazing work of the Fellows. It was a pleasure to work with such a motivated and capable team of developers.” –Oliver Hinds, Senior Data Scientist at Vera

As hundreds of communities across the country invest tens, and sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars in expanding jail capacity, it is urgent to understand how and why smaller communities are being left behind in the era of criminal justice reform. Data can do more than identify problems--it can inspire truly transformative change to the policies and practices that have sustained mass incarceration.” – Jasmine Heiss, Campaign Director at Vera’s In Our Backyards Project

This work could only have been done in close collaboration with Vera's team. With their guidance, we were able to make informed engineering and design decisions that allowed researchers to account for the complexities of the justice system. This thoughtful engineering and design, guided by Vera's research and mission, will enable this project to support analysis and impact for years to come.” – Rasmi Elasmar, Fellow & Software Engineer at

There are so many people who are lost in our justice system. Vera understands this world holistically, but in order to take action, it’s essential to first have an understanding of what this population is. There’s a huge need to reform the current system and until significant changes are made, Individuals, communities and our society are losing out. In some ways our justice system has been a black box. My hope is that exposing these insights and data will help people get a sense of what’s happening and take action based on those insights." – Aria Ashton, Fellow & Program Manager at

"Nowhere is the need for timely, actionable data more acute than in the U.S. criminal justice system. The work that the Vera Institute and have just completed is a critical step in not only illuminating the problems as they exist today, but in building lasting capacity for change." –Clementine Jacoby, Executive Director of Recidiviz

"While high-profile reform efforts are underway in Texas' big cities, here in Hays County we've seen incarceration rates rise six times faster than the population in recent years—despite less crime. The expense of our exploding jail population has grown nearly 7,000% in the last five years, and we've run out of beds to house everyone. Small towns and the countryside are ground zero for over-criminalization, and as a national movement we must apply our focus and resources accordingly." –Eric Martinez, Policy Director at Mano Amiga (Hays County, TX)

"Storytelling helps grassroots organizations effectively communicate how destructive current policies or procedures are for the country’s most underrepresented communities. The collection and dissemination of this sort of in-depth data supports organizers who regularly integrate emotional, personal stories into their local campaigns. Focusing on just a single person’s story, without the use of relevant data, can have unintended results—causing opposition to aim harmful rhetoric at the person or person’s directly impacted by the carceral system, which can lead to the re-traumatization of the individual. As a directly-impacted person, I feel more confident in sharing my experiences when I can juxtapose them, for example, with data about my county’s rate of arrests for Black people who are Cite and Release eligible. It is the balanced combination of verifiable data and intuitive appeals to compassion and empathy that help organizers like me transform the overwhelmingly one-sided narrative about criminal justice’s efficacy in rural counties throughout the country." –Faylita Hicks, Advocate at Mano Amiga (Hays County, TX)

About the Vera Institute of Justice

The Vera Institute of Justice is a justice reform change agent. Vera produces ideas, analysis, and research that inspire change in the systems people rely upon for safety and justice. Vera collaborates with the communities most impacted by these systems and works in close partnership with government and civic leaders to implement change. Across projects, Vera is committed to explicitly and effectively reducing the burdens of the justice system on people of color, and frames all work with an understanding of our country’s history of racial oppression. Vera is currently pursuing core priorities of ending the overuse and misuse of jails, transforming conditions of confinement, providing legal services for immigrants, and ensuring that justice systems more effectively serve America’s increasingly diverse communities. Vera has offices in Brooklyn, NY; Washington, DC; New Orleans, and Los Angeles.

For more information, visit

About the Fellowship

In January 2019, Google announced the creation of the Fellowship, where Google employees can apply to do full-time pro bono work for up to six months with grantees working in areas like education, criminal justice, or economic opportunity. Underway during that announcement was a Fellowship with the Vera Institute of Justice which was comprised of 12 Googlers including engineers, product managers, user experience researchers, and designers supporting Vera in tackling one of their toughest challenges: designing and creating a central source of jail population data for the nation’s 3,000+ counties allowing Vera to advocate for insights-based policy change in jails across the United States.

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