Incarceration Trends Project Update: Jail incarceration rates in America’s small counties continue to rise as those in larger counties decline

Online data mapping tool incorporating recently released federal data demonstrates disparity in jail trends between large and small counties

New York, NY—The Vera Institute of Justice today announced an update to its Incarceration Trends Project online data tool, which collects and analyzes information on current jail populations and historic trends in every U.S. county. Newly released federal jails census data—now incorporated into the tool—amplifies and expands on previous findings that the nation’s small counties have driven the more than four-fold nationwide growth of jails since 1970, showing that jail use has continued to grow in small counties while it recently began to decline in larger counties.

Since 1970, the jail incarceration rates in the nation’s 2,600 smallest counties rose faster than in mid-sized and large counties, causing small counties’ share of the U.S. jail population to grow from 28 percent to 44 percent, as Vera reported in the recent publication In Our Own Backyard: Confronting Growth and Disparities in American Jails. The new federal data sheds further insight into this finding, illustrating that from 2005 to 2014, jail incarceration rates declined 10 percent in mid-sized and large counties, and increased 6 percent in small counties during the same period.

“While jail use in small counties continues to rise unabated,  it has declined in larger counties that have actively pursued reforms, such as New York City, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Milwaukee,” said Christian Henrichson, center research director at the Vera Institute of Justice and project lead. “This data update shows that reversing course on rising local incarceration is possible, but also reinforces the need to do so in every county, not only in large cities.”

This update to the Incarceration Trends data tool gives policymakers and the public in every county—even the very smallest—the tools necessary to examine this growth and make comparisons to both neighboring counties and average state and national rates on individual county profile pages.

In addition to complete data about jail population size and admissions for each county, the tool can be used to explore a county’s jail trends by gender and race. A new video tutorial shows how to use the tool to analyze the disparate impacts of race in jail trends.

The Incarceration Trends Project is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as part of itsSafety and Justice Challenge initiative, which seeks to address over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails, as well as the Robert W. Wilson Charitable Trust.