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Will new jail construction lead to an expansion in incarceration?

A new wave of jail construction may have long-term consequences for the effort to reduce mass incarceration. 

As jail populations grew in the 1980s and 1990s, many counties built new, large facilities, many of which are now old and obsolete.Steven Holmes, “The Nation: The Boom in Jails Is Locking Up Lots of Loot,” New York Times, November 6, 1994.  Whether jail populations will grow or shrink over the coming years may depend on how those counties respond to the phasing-out of those facilities. Counties rarely replace an old jail with new facility that is smaller or even of similar capacity.A notable exception to this occurred in New Orleans, where the 6,000-bed local jail destroyed by Hurricane Katrina was replaced with a 1,400-bed facility in response to community activism. Editorial Board, “The New Orleans Jails, 10 Years Later,” New York Times, August 27, 2015.  But by increasing capacity through the construction of larger facilities, the jail population may very well expand as bed capacity expands.Anat Rubin, “Build More Jails and They Will Be Filled,” Newsweek, July 10, 2015.  However, in jurisdictions in Arkansas, Colorado, Montana, Pennsylvania, and Texas, communities will have a say—in the form of elections, referendums, public hearings, and local petitions—as to whether or not to fund a new facility at all, much less a larger one.For recent examples in Arkansas, Colorado, Montana, Pennsylvania, and Texas see Randy Hogan, “JPs Call for Election to Build New Jail,” Helena World, October 12, 2017; Jesse Paul, “Pueblo County Voters Will Be Asked to Increase Their Sales Tax in an Effort to Build a New Jail, Detox Center,” Denver Post, September 7, 2017Justin Franz, “County Eyes Weyerhaeuser Land, Building for Possible Jail,” Flathead Beacon, August 31, 2017; Tom Shortell, “Talk of Building New Jail Has Nazareth Area Residents on Edge,” Morning Call, October 5, 2017; and Julia Wallace, “Tensions Rise in Laredo over Proposed $125M Jail Facility,” Laredo Morning Times, October 30, 2017, (Texas).