New First In-Kind Tool Maps Jail Incarceration Rates in Every U.S. County

Vera Institute of Justice Introduces New Incarceration Trends Project

NEW YORK, NY – The Vera Institute of Justice announced today its new Incarceration Trends project aimed at informing the public debate on mass incarceration and helping to guide change by providing easily accessible information on jail populations in every U.S. county, including growth in jail populations and disparities in incarceration rates.

The centerpiece of the Incarceration Trends project is a first-of-its-kind online data tool that collates and analyzes publically available—but disparately located—data about jail incarceration. The tool currently includes jail data for every one of the approximately 3,000 counties in the country and combined jail and prison data for all counties in New York and California. 

“Jails are where mass incarceration begins, and reforming how we use them is critical to how we can end it,” said Vera President Nicholas Turner. “Incarceration Trends provides the actionable data needed to drive local-level change that, until now, has been lacking. We look forward to using this critical tool with policymakers and other partners willing to join with us to end the country’s overreliance on jails.”

Some of the data highlights include:

  • Since 1970, there has been more than a four-fold increase the number of people held in jail, from 157,000 to 690,000 per year, which has mirrored the increase in the prison population. Yet, while there is a growing recognition that jails are the front door to mass incarceration, until now there has been strikingly little data such as is available on prisons to guide jail reform efforts.  
  • Incarceration has grown the most outside the largest counties. While jails in places such as New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago get significant attention, Vera found that the jails in the largest counties have not grown the most, nor are they necessarily located in jurisdictions with the highest incarceration rates. With a four-fold growth in jail population from 1970 to 2014 overall, large counties grew by 2.8 times, while midsize counties more than quadrupled, and small counties experienced almost a seven-fold increase.  
  • African Americans make up nearly 40 percent of the jail population. African Americans have the highest incarceration rates, particularly in mid-sized and small counties.  
  • Female incarceration rates have skyrocketed, and are highest in smallest counties. Since 1970, there has been more than a fourteen-fold increase the number of women held in jail, from fewer than 8,000 women in 1970 to 110,000 women in 2014.

“After four decades of growth, every jail has room for improvement,” said Christian Henrichson, director of the Incarceration Trends project. “And because, as these findings detail, it’s in mid-sized and small counties where jails have grown the most and hold the majority of the nation’s jail inmates, reform needs to happen in all counties—not just the very largest.”

In the months and years ahead Vera will incorporate additional data, such as the number of people in, and admissions to, prison by county for all 50 states. As part of the project, Vera will periodically publish policy briefs, fact sheets, and infographics on selected topics drawn from analyses using the data tool. The first report, In Our Own Backyard: Confronting Growth and Disparities in American Jails, is available now and summarizes the initial findings of the tool.

A video tour on using the tool by Christian Henrichson is available online, and an accompanying fact sheet illustrates how local counties can see their individual historical trends, as well as how they compare with similarly situated counties.