Incarceration’s Front Door: The Misuse of Jails in America

Though there is hardly a town without one or a big city without several, jails are rarely on the radar of most Americans. There are more than 3,000 jails in the United States, holding 731,000 people on any given day—more than the population of Detroit and nearly as many people as live in San Francisco. This number, high as it may be, is only a one-day snapshot. In the course of a typical year, there are nearly 12 million jail admissions—equivalent to the populations of Los Angeles and New York City combined and nearly 19 times the annual admissions to state and federal prisons. Although in common parlance jails are often confused with prisons—the state or federal institutions where most of those convicted of crimes and given a sentence of imprisonment are sent—jails are locally run facilities, primarily holding people arrested but not yet convicted, and are the place where most people land immediately following arrest. Jails are the gateway to the formal criminal justice system in a country that holds more people in custody than any other country on the planet.

Intended to house only those deemed to be a danger to society or a flight risk before trial, jails have become massive warehouses primarily for those too poor to post even low bail or too sick for existing community resources to manage. Most jail inmates—three out of five people—are legally presumed innocent, awaiting trial or resolution of their cases through plea negotiation in facilities that are often overcrowded, noisy, and chaotic. While jails do hold people accused of serious, violent crimes, nearly 75 percent of the population of both sentenced offenders and pretrial detainees are in jail for nonviolent traffic, property, drug, or public order offenses. In New York City, for example, nearly 50 percent of cases which resulted in some jail time were for misdemeanors or lesser charges. In Los Angeles County, a study of the jail system in 2008 by the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) found that the single largest group booked into the jail consisted of people charged with traffic and vehicular offenses.

Although most defendants admitted to jail over the course of a year are released within hours or days, rather than weeks or months, even a short stay in jail is more than an inconvenience. Being detained is often the beginning of a journey through the criminal justice system that can take many wrong turns. Just a few days in jail can increase the likelihood of a sentence of incarceration and the harshness of that sentence, reduce economic viability, promote future criminal behavior, and worsen the health of those who enter—making jail a gateway to deeper and more lasting involvement in the criminal justice system at considerable costs to the people involved and to society at large. These costs are also borne by their families and communities, depressing economies, contributing to increased crime, and breaking familial and social bonds. For the disproportionately high number of those who enter jails from minority communities, or who suffer from mental illness, addiction, and homelessness, time spent in jail exacerbates already difficult conditions and puts many on a cycle of incarceration from which it is extremely difficult to break free.

Recent criminal justice reform efforts have focused in the main on reducing the number of people in state prisons. Prompted by ballooning state corrections budgets and a plummeting crime rate, policymakers across the political spectrum have been willing to re-examine the punitive policies that relied on incarceration as a principal crime control strategy. This new policy environment has also been encouraged and buoyed by consistent public opinion polls that show most Americans support alternatives to incarceration—particularly for nonviolent offenses—and research demonstrating that certain types of law-breakers can be safely and more effectively supervised in the community.

Given the complex role jails play in compounding the manifold negative consequences of mass incarceration in America—well acknowledged today on both sides of the aisle—local policymakers and their constituents interested in reducing recidivism, improving public safety, and promoting stronger, healthier communities might do well to take a hard look at how the jail in their city or county is used. To help foster public debate and action by public officials, this report offers an overview of the nation’s misuse of jails. It examines the characteristics of the people who typically cycle in and out of jails; some of the key policies that contributed to the rise in the use of jail; and the impact of jail incarceration on individuals, families, and communities. It also looks at key decision points where strategies can be adopted to decrease the misuse of jails within the American criminal justice system.

View the full report.

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