I need your help. I co-founded the Prison Policy Initiative to put the problem of mass incarceration — and the perverse incentives that fuel it — on the national agenda. Over the last 15 years, our campaigns have protected our democracy from the prison system and the poorest families in this country from the predatory prison telephone industry. Our reports untangle the statistics and recruit new allies.

But now, more than ever, we need your help to put data & compassion into the conversation.

Thank you.
—Peter Wagner, Executive DirectorDonate

by Wendy Sawyer, June 22, 2017

Today, a new Bureau of Justice Statistics report offers another grim view of mental health problems in America’s prisons and jails. Indicators of Mental Health Problems Reported by Prisoners and Jail Inmates 2011-12 is the first government update on the mental health of incarcerated populations since 2006. BJS has made some changes to its data collection, making comparisons to earlier reports difficult,1 but the takeaway is the same, ten years later: U.S. prisons and jails are filled with people who have a current or past mental health problem, and facilities are still not meeting the demand for treatment.

Half of people incarcerated in prisons and two-thirds of people in jails had either current “serious psychological distress”2 or a history of mental health problems. Yet only about a third of those reporting serious psychological distress were currently receiving treatment, and only a slightly greater share of people with a history of mental health problems was currently being treated. So while correctional facilities are warehousing people with mental health problems, they lack the capacity to adequately meet the needs of those in their care.

Graph showing rates of serious psychological distress is higher in prisons and jails than among the general population.1 in 4 people incarcerated in jails reported experiences that met the threshold for serious psychological distress. This makes people in jail six times more likely to experience serious psychological distress than people with no criminal justice involvement in the past year.

People in prisons and jails experience serious psychological distress at much greater rates than the general public. This difference is especially pronounced among jail inmates – and especially in the first 30 days of incarceration – which is consistent with other reports of mental illness prevalence and the danger of even short stays in local jails. It’s unclear whether the high rates of psychological distress in jails is due to the stressful experience of incarceration or is a result of jailing people in crisis. But these statistics underscore the need to divert people at risk away from jail and connect them to more appropriate services in the community. Policymakers in some places seem to be catching on, but as this report reminds us, the need for more widespread reforms is urgent.

Women in jails, in particular, report high rates of mental health problems compared to men. The findings from this report are consistent with the 2006 report and others that find incarcerated women are more likely than men to have a history of mental health problems. But the new measure of serious psychological distress shows that women are also more likely to report current mental health problems – especially in jails, where as many as 1 in 3 women experiences serious psychological distress.

Graph showing that women in prison and jails are more likely than men to have a history of mental health problems.Consistent with previous reports, female respondents in prisons and jails reported a history of mental health problems more frequently than male respondents.

Graph showing women in prisons and jails experience serious psychological distress at higher rates than men.1 in 3 female respondents in jails reported experiencing symptoms of serious psychological distress – more than twice the rate of men in prisons.

A final noteworthy finding from the new BJS report is the danger to others posed by people struggling with mental health problems. In prisons, people experiencing serious psychological distress are three times more likely to be written up for physical or verbal assault of correctional officers, staff, or other incarcerated people, compared to those without any mental health problems. In jails, people experiencing serious psychological distress are about 2.5 times more likely to assault others.

Again, we are reminded that appropriate treatment of health problems is essential for the health, safety, and well-being of not only affected individuals, but everyone around them, both while incarcerated and upon their return to the community.



  1. The new report is based on data from the 2011-2012 National Inmate Survey, and includes two mental health indicators: current “serious psychological distress” and any history of a mental health problem. The new measure of serious psychological distress (see footnote 2) gives a clearer picture of current mental health than the 2006 report, which asked about symptoms over the past year. Conversely, the measure of mental health history is broader than the one used in 2006; it asks respondents whether a mental health professional has ever told them they had a mental or emotional condition instead of limiting responses to just the past year.  ↩
  2. “Serious psychological distress” was measured using the Kessler 6 scale, a tool used to screen for serious mental illness among adults. It asks how frequently in the past 30 days the respondent felt: nervous, hopeless, restless or fidgety, so depressed nothing could cheer them up, everything was an effort, and worthless.  ↩

by Aleks Kajstura, June 21, 2017

The Prison Policy Initiative joined the Wright Petitioners, as well as other advocates in requesting that the FCC block the latest sale of Securus and investigate the company’s continued flouting of FCC regulations.

The filing highlights some of Securus’ most egregious rule-breaking, including predatory practices going back at least a decade. For example,

In short, per-call, per-connection and flat-rate charges have been prohibited for more than a year now. Securus fought the prohibition, and when it lost the fight, Securus it nevertheless continued the practice of charging the fees, but under a different name.

[W]hen the Commission adopted rules to prohibit per-call connection and flat-rate fees, Securus simply renamed its connection fees as “first-minute rates” and began charging even more money for the same prohibited charge.

And the last time Securus was sold, in 2013, the sale was allowed to go through because Securus promised to “not make any ‘changes in rates, terms, or conditions of service as a result of the transaction.’ … Securus failed to comply with that commitment by actually raising [in-state phone] rates across the country.”

If this sale goes through, Securus will ultimately be owned in part by Tom Gores; a curious acquisition for someone who owns the Detroit Pistons. You see, Securus’ shenanigans with the connection charges hit Michigan residents hardest. Gores’ own ties to the state, as well as the Detroit Piston’s own focus on commitment to their community, make one wonder why Gores would be interested in a company that charges some Michigan residents as much as $8.20 for just a single minute of a call from an incarcerated loved one.

Securus continues to fight regulations so that it can continue to exploit the country’s poorest families. While Securus went to court to fight caps on how much it could charge for calls, it re-jiggered its in-state rates to compensate for regulations banning exploitative charges for interstate calls. “As a result, a 15-minute [in-state] call from sixteen (16) county jails in Michigan, and twentyeight (28!) county jails overall, costs more than $20, entirely due to the fact that the first-minute rate at these correctional facilities is at least $5.00 higher than the charge for each additional minute.”

All this is even more distressing in light of what the Washington Post calls “A crushing court decision for prison inmates and their families.” The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia recently vacated the FCC’s in-state rate caps, and while the courts sort through some remaining questions, they leave families at Securus’ mercy for those calls, as we explained in February.

Securus fights against regulations and then flouts the ones that survive. This is a company that should be investigated, not sold off to the next owner who can stomach it.

by Wendy Sawyer, June 20, 2017

Next Tuesday, California’s Senate Human Services Committee will consider a bill (AB 811) that would give incarcerated juveniles access to computer technology and the internet. The Prison Policy Initiative submitted a letter in support of the bill, outlining the benefits of internet access for incarcerated people. We also highlight how this legislation stakes new ground by proposing internet access, rather than the proprietary closed platforms currently used by prisons and jails, which allow private companies to extract exorbitant user fees from the state’s poorest families.

June 20, 2017
The Honorable Mike Gipson
California State Capitol
P.O. Box 942849
Sacramento, CA 94249-0064

Dear Assemblymember Gipson,

I write on behalf of the Prison Policy Initiative to express strong support for Assembly Bill 811, concerning the rights of incarcerated juveniles to access computer technology and the internet.

The Prison Policy Initiative is a research and advocacy organization comprised of national experts in various criminal-justice related fields. As part of our work, we have developed considerable expertise concerning telecommunications services used by incarcerated people, and have recently pursued several research projects on new technologies such as video visitation 1 and electronic messaging.2

AB 811 is laudable because it promotes a balanced and thoughtful policy of emphasizing the humanity of incarcerated juveniles by providing additional avenues for communication and education. In fact, as more functions of government, business, and education migrate to the internet, connectivity is critical to the well-being of incarcerated people and their chances of success upon reentry. We believe that AB 811 would benefit incarcerated juveniles in the following areas:

  • Media literacy. As the amount of information on the internet grows at staggering rates, the ability to analyze and evaluate the reliability of such content becomes paramount to being a wise consumer of news and data.3
  • Education. Lifelong learning is now closely connected to technology and internet access. Not only is a great deal of educational content accessible online, but even programs in traditional classroom settings increasingly expect students to arrive already equipped with basic technological skills.
  • Maintaining family connections. Because most incarcerated juveniles will return to their communities of origin, maintaining meaningful relationships with friends and family is critical for successful reentry.4 Technology such as video streaming, email, and social networking apps can greatly aid this process, especially when family members are separated by substantial geographical distances.
  • Employment. Finding employment and succeeding in a job are both becoming more dependent on an individual’s familiarity with technology. Because formerly incarcerated people are already at a profound disadvantage when seeking employment, it is critical that they leave confinement with knowledge and skills that will compensate (albeit only partially) for this liability.
  • Personal finance. People who are incarcerated are disproportionately low-income,5 meaning that they have an acute need for personal financial management skills. Technology enhances personal finance in several ways. For example, people who can easily access transactional data (e.g., online account histories) are more likely to have a firm grasp on their personal financial situation. In addition, the ability to use the internet for product research and price comparisons is an important tool to help consumers spend their money wisely.

AB 811 is also a notable milestone for the rights of justice-involved people because it specifically refers to internet access inside correctional facilities. Our research (which is focused on adult facilities, and therefore may overlook limited exceptions in the juvenile sector) indicates that prisons and jails reflexively prohibit any level of internet access, based less on reasoned policy decisions than fear of public misconceptions.6 Your legislation is a big step forward. As the Supreme Court remarked just this week: “While in the past there may have been difficulty in identifying the most important places (in a spatial sense) for the exchange of views, today the answer is clear. It is cyberspace—the ‘vast democratic forums of the Internet’ in general . . . and social media in particular.”7 As a society, we can no longer exclude incarcerated people from these important spaces simply due to undifferentiated fear.

It is important to note that new technologies are not completely absent from the correctional setting—to the contrary, there is a growth trend in computers and mobile devices being marketed specifically for use by incarcerated people. The problem, however, is that such technology is currently designed to only access proprietary closed platforms that typically allow customers to access communications services or digital content only upon payment of exorbitant user fees.

While we do not dispute the need for some level of security-related restrictions, wholesale prohibitions on internet access simply foster the predatory financial model that current products are built on. By seeking to remove this formidable barrier, AB 811 stakes out important ground in the movement to end mass incarceration.

The Prison Policy Initiative thanks you for your foresight in introducing this important piece of legislation. Please let me know how our organization can support this effort.


Peter Wagner



  1. Bernadette Rabuy & Peter Wagner, Screening Out Family Time: The for-profit video visitation industry in prisons and jails (Jan. 2015). Available at: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/visitation/  ↩
  2. Stephen Raher, You’ve Got Mail: The promise of cyber communication in prisons and the need for regulation (Jan. 2016). Available at: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/messaging/  ↩
  3. See generally, Kaiser Family Foundation, “Key Facts: Media Literacy” (Fall 2003). Available at: https://kaiserfamilyfoundation.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/key-facts-media-literacy.pdf  ↩
  4. See generally, Bernadette Rabuy & Daniel Kopf, Separation by Bars and Miles: Visitation in state prisons (Oct. 20, 2015). Available at: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/prisonvisits.html  ↩
  5. Bernadette Rabuy & Daniel Kopf, Prisons of Poverty: Uncovering the pre-incarceration incomes of the imprisoned (Jul. 9, 2015). Available at: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/income.html  ↩
  6. For an older survey of related legal issues, see Titia A. Holtz, Reaching Out from behind Bars: The Constitutionality of Laws Barring Prisoners from the Internet, 6 Brook. L. Rev. 855 (2001-02).  ↩
  7. Packingham v. North Carolina, Case No. 15-1194, slip op. at 4-5 (U.S. Sup. Ct., Jun. 19, 2017) (quoting Reno v. ACLU, 521 U.S. 844, 868 (1997) (citation omitted)).  ↩

by Alex Clark, June 20, 2017

We need to be paying more attention to prosecutors.

This truism echoed throughout the day of the “Redefining the Role of the Prosecutor Within the Community” conference I attended at Harvard Law School last Friday. There were highlight presentations by John Pfaff and Measures for Justice, along with panelists from the ACLU Boston, Charles Hamilton Houston Institute, Color for Change, the Innocence Project, and many others.

Prosecutors, former judges, and legal experts unanimously agreed: the role of the prosecutor is often misunderstood and underestimated. In the opening panel, experts outlined how prosecutors determine the baseline of whether or not an individual is charged, the nature of the crime, the length of the sentence, whether a juvenile will be charged as an adult, and many other key factors affecting the outcome of trials and the lives of those involved. Hon. Nancy Gertner stated that she was a federal judge for decades, but her role was never nearly as important as that of the prosecutor.

Assistant District Attorney in the Juvenile Division of Suffolk County, Adam Foss, balked at how little prosecutors have changed since the inception of this country. Similarly essential fields in our society, such as medicine, not only champion progress, but also face public demand for advancement. Most people would feel unsafe with the health standards and practices of the 18th or 19th centuries. Where is the outcry about outdated practices of the modern prosecutor?

Former prosecutors in the second panel unveiled troubling realities of the legal system. They described how prosecutors are often in entry-level jobs with minimum pay, they are new lawyers just beginning to gain trial experience. Some of the least qualified candidates have the most important roles in our judicial system.

Former prosecutor and current ACLU Racial Justice Program Director, Rahsaan Hall, revealed how much freedom prosecutors are given, especially in the case of setting bail. Hall spoke of one of his first times in court without a supervising attorney. When asked by the judge to set bail, Hall realized there was no set number to prescribe, no strict guideline to abide by. Hall said that as a young, inexperienced prosecutor, he was determining someone’s future without understanding his or her financial reality. After asking his supervisor later, Hall was told, “if you asked ten different attorneys, you’d get ten different answers”. There was virtually no oversight for an incredible amount of power.

When considering what makes a good prosecutor, voters usually look at things like number of indictments, declination rates, and years sentenced per conviction. However, panelists made clear that citizens should seek prosecutors with community involvement and who focus not only on public safety, but also on community health.

John Pfaff, author of Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform, also asked why the United States was the only country in the world to elect their prosecutors. During election cycles, antiquated metrics focused on punitiveness become more important for campaign branding and ultimately deter reform.

Panelists from the ACLU shared that, during the last 20 years, 70% of District Attorney races have gone uncontested. They are often races on odd election years where voter turnout is low, and for those voters who do turn up, 30% don’t make it far enough down the ballot to vote for a District Attorney. The current system is not working or representative of those who are most affected by the criminal justice system. 96% of elected prosecutors are white men.

The overarching takeaway from every speaker was for voters to use their voice. Prosecutors are still elected officials. We can use our voices for change. We need to. As Deputy Director of the ACLU Florida, Melba Pearson, stated on Friday, “the only way to make a change is to be part of this conversation”.

by Lucius Couloute, June 16, 2017

Are you interested in joining our dedicated team to find new ways of transforming the debate around criminal justice reform? Do you want to shape innovative advocacy campaigns and spark critical discourse to create a more just society?

Our current Policy & Communications associate, Lucius Couloute, is taking on a more policy-oriented role, allowing us to hire a full-time team member fully dedicated to focusing on communications to help extend our reach as we continue to grow.

If this sounds like a good fit, consider applying for our Communications Director position; designed for an experienced individual to immediately take over our existing media and public relations systems.

by Joshua Aiken, June 14, 2017

In our most recent report, Era of Mass Expansion, we argued that state lawmakers need to pay attention to local jails: the U.S. jail population has tripled over the last three decades almost entirely because local justice systems have increasingly detained people who are legally innocent but too poor to make bail. But there’s another reason jails need to be at the top of state lawmakers’ agendas—jails affect state prison outcomes.

While untangling the data we found that, since 1978, jail populations have grown in tandem with state prison populations in every state. In fact, 75% of Americans live in a state where both the state prison and local jail incarceration rates doubled.

Growth reflects the change in the jail incarceration rate per 100,000 over time, so a figure of “2” means the jail incarceration is twice as high in 2013 as it was in 1978. In half the states both incarceration rates tripled. The six states with “N/A” for their jail rates do not have jail systems separate from their prison systems. For more on our data sources for jail and prison growth see the methodology section in our full report.
State Jail growth (1978-2013) Prison growth (1978-2013)
Alabama 2.27 4.49
Alaska N/A 2.99
Arizona 2.28 4.26
Arkansas 2.45 5.03
California 1.80 4.11
Colorado 3.89 4.29

Connecticut N/A 5.61
Delaware N/A 2.63
Florida 2.31 2.24
Georgia 2.12 2.60
Hawaii N/A 4.89
Idaho 2.95 5.76
Illinois 3.09 4.01
Indiana 4.82 5.63
Iowa 4.82 4.15
Kansas 5.46 3.27
Kentucky 3.16 4.91
Louisiana 1.43 4.73
Maine 2.63 2.87
Maryland 2.60 1.86
Massachusetts 3.86 3.96
Michigan 2.69 2.72
Minnesota 2.84 3.88
Mississippi 3.17 6.55
Missouri 3.12 4.50
Montana 4.42 4.12
Nebraska 4.81 3.30
Nevada 1.77 2.44
New Hampshire 3.17 6.79
New Jersey 3.10 3.41
New Mexico 6.09 2.67
New York 2.14 2.35
North Carolina 4.04 1.66
North Dakota 5.54 9.71
Ohio 3.08 3.68
Oklahoma 3.06 4.89
Oregon 1.89 3.36
Pennsylvania 5.31 6.15
Rhode Island N/A 3.53
South Carolina 4.55 1.90
South Dakota 4.41 5.90
Tennessee 2.55 3.34
Texas 2.37 3.29
Utah 3.24 3.63
Vermont N/A 3.57
Virginia 3.95 2.99
Washington 2.46 2.21
West Virginia 3.25 5.71
Wisconsin 4.90 4.99
Wyoming 4.80 3.94

Mass incarceration is not really a question of prison or jail growth, but both: more people behind bars for low-level crimes means that, soon enough, entire justice systems are bursting at the seams. While crime rates have fallen drastically over these 35 years, “tough-on-crime” attitudes have continued to shape local and state decision-makers’ approach to dealing with social concerns.

As more Americans have acquired criminal and arrest records, and as jails have increasingly become filled with people who are marginalized and poor, the entire criminal justice system has been transformed. Spending time in jail not only leads to a number of collateral consequences, but also other financial roadblocks to successful reentry, and higher recidivism rates.

Putting more people in jail for minor crimes will soon mean a state prison system bursting at the seams.

There is no question that state prisons are the largest slice of the whole pie. But as James Kilgore has usefully explained, jails are the “local face of mass incarceration.” Unless state lawmakers begin addressing the practices of local officials and how low-level offenses are treated, negative outcomes will continue and state incarceration rates will remain sky high.

Governors and legislators need to recognize that the vast majority of people who are released from state prisons and are arrested for another crime get arrested in the same state—they often end up back in the prisons or jails of that state. So while jails function at the city and county level, high rates of incarceration in one local jurisdiction can shape state-level trends. Mass incarceration is a systematic phenomenon, operating at all levels of government, but state lawmakers are particularly responsible for how many of their constituents end up behind bars.

by Joshua Aiken, June 14, 2017

Mass incarceration sits on the doorstep of American democracy: the District of Columbia is not only the nation’s capital but also the incarceration capital of the “free world”.

So, in addition to our 50 state profiles, we have just added a profile page for the District of Columbia. While we don’t (yet) have a good annual data source for recent prison growth—the District of Columbia’s prison system was integrated into the federal Bureau of Prisons in 2001—this new page is an added resource for those wanting to know more about the criminal justice system in Washington D.C.

by Lucius Couloute, June 13, 2017

In the U.S., we often hear ‘you do the crime, you do the time.’ But incarceration isn’t just an individual-level problem, it affects entire networks of people. This Father’s Day I’d like to bring attention to the pernicious consequences of parental incarceration and the exploitive ways in which private telecom companies profit from the separation of families.

Crime has been declining for decades, yet the number of children with a father in state or federal prison is now over 1.5 million. If we include jails, 1 out of every 28 children now has an incarcerated parent. And the latest estimates suggest that Black and Hispanic children are up to six times more likely to have an incarcerated parent than their white peers.

Graph showing number of minor children with a father in state or federal prison from 1991-2007. From 1991 to 2007 the number of minor children with a father in state or federal prison increased 77%. In a separate graph we detail the growing number of fathers in prisons.

Victims of a war waged – largely on poor communities of color – long before they were born, over-criminalization forces children to contend with a vast array of barriers that prevent upward economic mobility. Parental incarceration is associated with an increased risk of childhood poverty, health problems, school suspension and expulsion, and can be a source of stigma for children as they navigate the world around them. During a period when bipartisan support for reform appears to be in flux, it’s important to remember that young lives are at stake when we over-incarcerate.

And as if the forced separation of fathers from their loved ones wasn’t enough, telecom providers have found a way to benefit – and indeed profit – from parental incarceration. At a time when phone companies provide unlimited long distance calling for people like me and you, it can cost an incarcerated person and their family up to $24.95 for a single 15-minute in-state phone conversation. These exorbitant costs help explain why over $1.3 billion a year goes to the prison telephone industry.

A more recent development has been the growth of the video visitation industry; where local jails collude with private companies to charge up to $1.50/minute for low quality offsite video conferencing services (not including any additional fees that get tacked on for good measure). As jails across the country implement this technology they tend to scale back or eliminate in-person visits altogether, all the while receiving kick-backs from the private, for-profit telecom companies.

The exploitative practices of the prison communication industry – which penalize families for trying to stay in touch – amounts to a kind of regressive taxation. In this case, the profits come disproportionately from poor people already struggling with the absence of a loved one. From both a policy perspective, and from the perspective of families, replacing in-person visits with poorly functioning and expensive video visitation is unacceptable.

So on this Father’s Day, millions of children will be without their fathers, and without the ability to pay the outrageous fees associated with speaking to them. I hope that by the time Father’s Day comes around next year, state lawmakers take the initiative to better regulate prison telecom companies, and most importantly, reduce the number of incarcerated people.

by Lucius Couloute, June 8, 2017

Policing in the United States is a highly polarized issue. According to one national poll, Black Americans are much more likely to report being treated unfairly by the police compared to their white counterparts. This is nothing new, of course. Racial disparities in the criminal justice system have always existed and can be linked to Black Americans’ distrust of the police, courts, and other arms of the state. New research out of Stanford University, however, uses novel data to substantiate what Black America has always known – that police officers treat Blacks differently than they do whites.

In their report, the authors find that “police officers speak significantly less respectfully to black than to white community members in everyday traffic stops,” and that this lack of respect occurs irrespective of the officer’s race, severity of the infraction, and even the outcome of the stop.

Rob Voigt and his co-authors capitalized on the growing adoption of body cameras in police forces across the country as a new source of data. The research team used video footage from 682 stops of Black drivers and 299 stops of white drivers in Oakland, California to analyze the language used by police officers in their interactions with community members during routine traffic stops.

In the first phase of the study, volunteers rated the respectfulness of language used by police in a sub-sample of police-community interactions. The volunteers reviewed transcriptions (not recordings) of interactions, so the race of both the officers and civilians were unknown to volunteers. The researchers found that even these “thin slices of police-community interactions reveal racial disparities in how respectful, impartial, polite, friendly, and formal officers’ language to community members was perceived.”

For the second phase, Voigt and his colleagues constructed a computational model that was able to interpret large swaths of transcribed video footage; a necessary step if we are ever to address the 26 million police vehicle stops occurring each year in the United States. Rooted in linguistic theories of respect, these models examined whether police officers used respectful language, like formal titles (Sir, Ma’am), showed concern for driver safety (“drive safe, please”), or instead used less respectful expressions, like commands to keep “hands on the wheel” or statements that addressed civilians by first name only.

Based on their entire sample, which included over 36,000 officer utterances, they found that whites are 57% more likely to hear an officer say one of the most respectful phrases – those involving gratitude or apologies for example – whereas Blacks were 61% more likely to hear officers use one of the least respectful expressions.

Although we’ve known for a while now that differences in satisfaction with police exist, this analysis of big data is the first to objectively measure how police officers communicate with the public and the racial disparities present in police-civilian interactions. “At the very least,” Voigt explained in an interview with CNN, “this provides evidence for something that communities of color have reported, that this is a real phenomenon.”

May 31, 2017

Joshua Aiken
jaiken [at] prisonpolicy.org
(413) 527-0845

Easthampton, Mass. — State capitols share responsibility for growing jail populations, charges a new report by the Prison Policy Initiative. “Jails are ostensibly locally controlled, but the people held there are generally accused of violating state law, and all too often, state policymakers ignore jails,” argues the new report, Era of Mass Expansion: Why State Officials Should Fight Jail Growth.

The fact that jails are smaller than state prison systems and under local control has allowed state officials to avoid addressing the problems arising from jail policies and practices. “Reducing the number of people jailed has obvious benefits for individuals, but also helps states curb prison growth down the line,” says Joshua Aiken, report author and Policy Fellow at the Prison Policy Initiative.

Every year, 11 million people churn through local jail systems, mostly for minor violations of state law. Of the 720,000 people in jails on a given day, most have not been convicted of a crime and have either just been arrested or are too poor to make bail. And since the 1980s, crime has fallen but the number of people jailed has more than tripled.

The new report finds that the key driver of jail growth is not what one might expect – courtroom judges finding more people guilty and sentencing them to jail. In fact, the number of people serving jail sentences has actually fallen over the last 20 years. Instead, the report finds two troubling explanations for jail growth:
graph showing that for the 30 year period from 1983-2013, the driving force of jail expansion has been the rise in pre-trial detention and the renting of jail space to other authorities

  • An increasing number of people held pre-trial.
  • Growing demand from federal and state agencies to rent cell space from local jails.

Recognizing the importance of state-specific data for policymakers and advocates, the report offers more than a hundred graphs that make possible state comparisons of jail trends. The report uncovers unique state problems that drive mass incarceration:

  • In some states, state officials have not utilized their ability to regulate the commercial bail industry, which has profited from the increased reliance on money bail and increased bail amounts. These trends have expanded the pre-trial population dramatically over time.
  • In other states, state lawmakers have expanded criminal codes, enabled overzealous prosecutors, and allowed police practices to play a paramount role in driving up jail populations, while underfunding pre-trial programs and alternatives to incarceration.
  • In 25 states, 10% or more of the people confined in local jails are being held for state or federal agencies, with some counties even adding capacity to meet the demand. This report is the first to be able to address the local jail population separately from the troubling issue of renting jail space.

Era of Mass Expansion draws particular attention to the states where the dubious practice of renting jail space to other authorities contributes most to jail growth. “Local sheriffs, especially in states like Louisiana and Kentucky, end up running a side business of incarcerating people for the state prison system or immigration authorities,” explains Aiken. “Renting out jail space often creates a financial incentive to expand jail facilities and keep more people behind bars.” The report finds that renting jail space for profit has contributed more to national jail growth since the 1980s than people who are being held by local authorities and who have actually been convicted of crimes.

For state policymakers, the report offers 10 specific recommendations to change how offenses are classified and treated by law enforcement, eliminate policies that criminalize poverty or create financial incentives for unnecessarily punitive practices, and monitor the upstream effects of local discretion. “There are plenty of things local officials can do to lower the jail population,” says Aiken. “With this report, I wanted to bring in state-level actors by showing how much of the solution is in their hands.”

The non-profit non-partisan Prison Policy Initiative was founded in 2001 to expose the broader harm of mass criminalization and spark advocacy campaigns to create a more just society. The organization produces big-picture data publications like Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie to help people fully engage in criminal justice reform. Era of Mass Expansion builds upon the organization’s 2016 analysis of the cycle of poverty and jail incarceration, Detaining the Poor: How money bail perpetuates an endless cycle of poverty and jail time.

The new report is available at www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/jailsovertime.html.

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