Although local jails are increasingly recognized as the “front door” to mass incarceration, justice system stakeholders and others historically have not had access to the necessary data to understand how their jail is being used and how it compares with others. To address this issue, Vera researchers developed a data tool that includes current and historical jail incarceration rates for every U.S. county. The data revealed that, since 1970, the number of people held in jail has increased from 157,000 to 690,000 in 2014—a more than four-fold increase nationwide, with growth rates highest in the smallest counties. This data also reveals wide variation in incarceration rates and racial disparities among jurisdictions of similar size, highlighting that the number of people in jail is largely the result of policy choices. With this new information in hand, policymakers can begin to make choices that are better for their communities.
Since 1970, the number of people in jail has quadrupled, with the bulk of this growth driven by mid-sized and small counties. Wide variations in incarceration rates among similar counties show that the number of people behind bars—and their demographic disparities—is largely the result of policy and practice choices.
New analysis of previously disparate data allows each U.S. county to see how its use of incarceration has changed over time, how it compares with similarly situated counties, and to evaluate reform efforts.
Mid-sized and small counties are where jails have grown the most and hold the majority of the nation’s jail inmates, so reform is necessary in all counties, not just the largest.
Policy choices—enacted in state and federal laws and interpreted and deployed by the police, prosecutors, judges, and others at the local level—have largely propelled the growth of jails.
Incarceration grew the most outside the largest counties—large counties grew by 2.8 times, while midsize counties grew by 4.1 times, and small counties grew by 6.9 times.
Since 1970, the number of women held in jail has increased fourteen fold, from fewer than 8,000 women in 1970 to 110,000 women in jails in 2014.
Today, African Americans make up nearly 40% of the jail population, and experience particularly high incarceration rates in mid-sized and small counties.
Young Adult Justice in Connecticut
Young people ages 18 to 24 make up 10 percent of the U.S. population but comprise 21 percent of people admitted into adult prison every year. Neuroscience shows that young adults in this age group are still developing in important ways. When mistakes they make lead to prison, we should ensure they are housed safely and that they’re given the tools ...
This Year’s Oscar Film Nominees Highlight the Shared History of Black American Life and Mass Incarceration
As this year’s line-up of Oscar film nominees demonstrates, there’s a troublesome marriage between black life and American incarceration that, over generations, has become commonplace. Recognizing this reality and understanding its causes and consequences is the first step toward brokering a necessary divorce. As Black History Month draws to a clos...
Accounting for Violence
How to Increase Safety and Break Our Failed Reliance on Mass Incarceration
In the United States, violence and mass incarceration are deeply entwined, though evidence shows that both can decrease at the same time. A new vision is needed to meaningfully address violence and reduce the use of incarceration—and to promote healing among crime survivors and improve public safety. This report describes four principles to guide p...