Vera Institute of Justice Unveils Updated Incarceration Trends Website

Revised site includes a trove of data, visualizations, and analytical tools on local jail and state prison populations and demographics.

Media Contact: Brittany Murphy, 508-826-2817,

New York, NY (December 16, 2021): The Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) today announced a new, updated version of its Incarceration Trends website, which now includes analysis of more than five decades of local jail and state prison data at the national, state, and county levels. The updated site brings many of the data points current to spring 2021 and represents the most comprehensive look to date at the growth of mass incarceration across states, counties, and urban-to-rural geographies.

“The Incarceration Trends project underscores that the harms of mass incarceration have been inflicted unequally across the United States,” said Jasmine Heiss, project director, In Our Backyards, at the Vera Institute of Justice. “Even after an unprecedented decline, the human and social cost of incarceration in the United States remains catastrophic. Black, Native, and Latinx people and poor people of all races and ethnicities are disproportionately criminalized and incarcerated. These trends are most pronounced in the nation’s rural counties.”

The nation’s biggest cities once had the highest rates of incarceration, but over the past several decades, jail incarceration and state prison admissions have declined in major metro areas as they rose precipitously in smaller cities and rural communities. Today in the United States, approximately two out of three people in local jails have not been convicted of a crime—many are being detained in civil matters, such as people incarcerated pretrial for immigration cases or those who can’t pay child support or fines and fees. The updated analysis presented in Incarceration Trends highlights that the disproportionate criminalization and incarceration of Black people and other people of color is also most pronounced in rural counties, as is the rise of women’s incarceration.

The newly visualized data also features the rebound in jail incarceration after an unprecedented 14 percent drop in incarceration in the first half of 2020 (bringing the total incarcerated population from 2.1 million to 1.8 million people) in response to the spread of COVID-19. As of spring 2021, state prison decarceration had stalled and jail populations continued to trend upward.

Incarceration Trends offers insight on national-, state-, and county-level pages, enabling users to compare county-level data to state and national trends. The website includes:

  • analysis of the race, ethnicity, and gender of people in the nation’s jails and prisons;

  • visualizations of state incarceration trends across major metros, smaller cities, suburbs, and rural communities;

  • rankings of all of the counties in a given state by the incarceration rate and growth of incarceration;

  • a visualization of each county’s jail population, representing the most recently available data about what proportion is held pretrial, sentenced, and held on behalf of other authorities, including state departments of corrections and federal agencies;

  • the ability to toggle between the average number of people held in a jail on any day and the rate of incarceration, accounting for resident population changes; and

  • data on regional jail systems that serve multiple counties.

The new Incarceration Trends website shows both the significant increase in jail incarceration across the urban to rural spectrum since 1970 and the more recent divergence in incarceration trends, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nationally, the rate at which people are incarcerated in local jails declined 26 percent between late 2019 and mid-2020. However, jail incarceration had rebounded sharply by spring 2021.

Given the dramatic shift in the geography of incarceration over the past several decades, it is no surprise that recent changes in incarceration looked very different across rural, suburban, small city, and major metropolitan areas. Rural areas still have the highest jail incarceration rates by far, with more than half the people incarcerated in local jails being held outside of the nation’s biggest cities.

By late March 2021, the outlines of the emerging “new normal” included an overall reduction in prison and jail incarceration. However, in many ways, jail and prison population changes reflected a deepening of preexisting political, economic, and social orientations toward punishment and detention. Most states that had higher incarceration rates in early 2020 saw smaller decreases in incarceration through spring 2021. At the federal level, neither the Biden administration nor Congress has taken action that reflects a commitment toward sustained decarceration. As jails have been refilling, statewide reforms to pretrial justice, supervision, and sentencing, as well as local efforts to reduce criminalization, are urgently needed.

About the Vera Institute of Justice:

The Vera Institute of Justice is powered by hundreds of advocates, researchers, and activists working to transform the criminal legal and immigration systems until they’re fair for all. Founded in 1961 to advocate for alternatives to money bail in New York City, Vera is now a national organization that partners with impacted communities and government leaders for change. We develop just, antiracist solutions so that money doesn’t determine freedom; fewer people are in jails, prisons, and immigration detention; and everyone is treated with dignity. Vera’s headquarters is in Brooklyn, New York, with offices in Washington, DC, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. For more information, visit