Jails matter. But who is listening?

by Peter Wagner, August 14, 2015  

Graph showing who's locked up in the U.S. in federal and state prisons, local jails, juvenile facilities, etc. One out of every three people who are locked up tonight are sitting in a local jail, not a state or federal prison. There are 3,283 jails in America, yet jails receive scant attention. The legislative, judicial and executive decisions that have fueled the explosion of our state prison populations are becoming well-known; but the myriad of subtle policy decisions that have sent our jail populations upwards are off the public’s radar.

Jails need to be a policy focus, as the Vera Institute of Justice recently argued in its aptly-titled report Incarceration’s Front Door: The Misuse of Jails in America.

Jails matter because a staggering 11 million people cycle through them each year. As we explained last year:

Jail churn is particularly high because at any given moment most of the 722,000 people in local jails have not been convicted and are in jail because they are either too poor to make bail and are being held before trial, or because they’ve just been arrested and will make bail in the next few hours or days. The remainder of the people in jail — almost 300,000 — are serving time for minor offenses, generally misdemeanors with sentences under a year.

So when we talk about jails we have to keep our eye on two numbers: the number of people in jail on a given day and the sheer volume of people who cycle through them as shown in this analysis of Bureau of Justice Statistics data:

Graph showing, for the years 2007 to 2014, the number of people -- 11 to 13 million -- a year who are admitted to jail per year and the number of people -- about 700,000 to 800,000 -- who are in jail on a given day.Addressing the problem of jails means grappling with the tremendous churn through jails. How can we lessen the numbers who enter jails and reduce the time that 11 million people spend there each year?

This “pre-trial” or “unconvicted” population is driving the growth in jail populations. In fact, 99% of the growth in jails over the last 15 years has been a result of increases in the pre-trial population:

Graph showing the number of people in jails from 1983 to 2014 by whether they have been convicted or not. The number of convicted people stopped growing in 1999, but the number of unconvicted people continues to grow.Virtually all of the growth in the jail population has been in the number of legally innocent people who are detained in jails.

These people are legally considered innocent until proven otherwise in court. But if they don’t have the money to post bail, the principle that they are legally innocent is not enough to keep them from being locked up until trial. A recent New York Times feature found that poverty is a frequent cause of pre-trial detention: in New York City even when bail is set at $500 or less, 85% of defendants were unable to afford bail.

Besides the injustice of our jails resembling modern day debtor’s prisons, excessive bail can have other harmful effects. Family life is disrupted, jobs and housing can be lost, and the combined effects can literally be fatal. Pre-trial detention also coerces people to plead guilty to minor offenses, including people who are factually innocent like the man featured in the New York Times article. Studies have also shown that people who are detained pretrial are more likely to be convicted than those who are able to afford bail.

Fortunately, the movement for bail reform is growing in places like New York City and the state of Massachusetts. But at the same time as we work to fix bail, we really should admit that the problem starts even before a bail hearing.

As Peter Goldberg, executive director of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund put it in the New York Times article:

And the truth is, even meaningful bail reform is just the beginning. The real work is asking why we’re arresting so many people on low-level offenses in the first place, and why so many of them come from poor black and brown communities. Bail is easy.

Or to be more precise: fixing bail should be easy. Why it’s taking so long is a good question and getting to the bottom of this country’s jail problem is going to depend on both reducing the number of people we send to jail each year and making it far easier for those who have been arrested to resume their lives while the judicial process proceeds.

29 Responses

  1. “Life means life” says, 4 days, 22 hours after publication:

    […] the majority in jails are denied bail and on remand, never having been convicted of any crime.  http://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2015/08/14/jailsmatter/     Related article: VERA Institute of Justice     Incarceration’s Front Door: The Misuse […]

  2. Keynote address at Iowa Justice Summit | Prison Policy Initiative says, 2 weeks, 2 days after publication:

    […] The growth of the unconvicted jail population and why jails can’t be ignored. (99% of the growth in jails in the last 15 years resulted from increases in the number of people who are not convicted) […]

  3. LC in Texas says, 1 month, 1 week after publication:

    Many of the people sitting in jails are there because of the incompetence of a public employee, a prosecutor or an uninformed Grand Jury. Sometimes all of the above! Plus you can probably add greed, benefits and revenue. All have broken their Oath of Office.

  4. Are private prisons driving mass incarceration? | Prison Policy Initiative says, 1 month, 3 weeks after publication:

    […] the private bail industry keeps legislatures from passing sensible bail reforms that would allow poor, unconvicted people who pose no public safety threat to wait for their trial at home rather than in […]

  5. Prison profiteers use campaign contributions to buy contracts | Prison Policy Initiative says, 3 months, 2 weeks after publication:

    […] Jails matter. Their policies might be set by 3,000 local governments, which can make them hard to follow and understand. But we need to look at jails, which are literally mass incarceration’s front door. […]

  6. Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2015 | From the Trenches World Report says, 3 months, 3 weeks after publication:

    […] by the criminal justice system. In addition to the 636,000 people released from prisons each year, over 11 million people cycle through local jails each year. Jail churn is particularly high because at any given moment a majority of the people in local […]

  7. Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2015 | HumansinShadow.wordpress.com says, 3 months, 3 weeks after publication:

    […] by the criminal justice system. In addition to the 636,000 people released from prisons each year, over 11 million people cycle through local jails each year. Jail churn is particularly high because at any given moment a majority of the people in local […]

  8. Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2015 | PopularResistance.Org says, 3 months, 4 weeks after publication:

    […] by the criminal justice system. In addition to the 636,000 people released from prisons each year, over 11 million people cycle through local jails each year. Jail churn is particularly high because at any given moment a majority of the people in local […]

  9. Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2015 - Justice Not Jails says, 4 months after publication:

    […] by the criminal justice system. In addition to the 636,000 people released from prisons each year, over 11 million people cycle through local jails each year. Jail churn is particularly high because at any given moment a majority of the people in local […]

  10. An Ode to Moya: Love in the Era of Mass Incarceration | Forensic News says, 5 months, 3 weeks after publication:

    […] — America incarcerates more of its citizens (and non citizens) than any other nation — More than 11 million people cycle in an out of prisons and jails each year. Most of the people incarcerated are men of color — research even indicates that more men of […]

  11. An Ode to Moya: Love in the Era of Mass Incarceration | Papa Niang says, 5 months, 3 weeks after publication:

    […] — America incarcerates more of its citizens (and non citizens) than any other nation — More than 11 million people cycle in an out of prisons and jails each year. Most of the people incarcerated are men of color — research even indicates that more men of […]

  12. An Ode to Moya: Love in the Era of Mass Incarceration - Change Of Venue Worldwide LLC says, 5 months, 3 weeks after publication:

    […] — America incarcerates more of its citizens (and non citizens) than any other nation — More than 11 million people cycle in an out of prisons and jails each year. Most of the people incarcerated are men of color — research even indicates that more men of […]

  13. A Law Student’s Plea to Fund Indigent Defense Services – The Commentator says, 6 months, 3 weeks after publication:

    […] by providing defendants with lawyers at bail hearings. Pre-trial detention makes up for 99% of the incarceration growth in the last fifteen years. A randomized control study in Baltimore, Maryland found that by giving […]

  14. America has nearly 1/2 million people in jail who haven't been convicted of committing a crime - Alternative Report says, 7 months after publication:

    […] year, 636,000 people walk out of prison gates, but people go to jail over 11 million times each year, 451,000 people in jails haven’t even been […]

  15. America has nearly 1/2 a million people in jail who haven’t been convicted of committing a crime | From the Trenches World Report says, 7 months after publication:

    […] Every year, 636,000 people walk out of America’s numerous prisons, but 11 million people cycle through our jails each year! […]

  16. New report breaks down America's huge criminal justice system « TVL says, 7 months after publication:

    […] by a rapist probity system. While 636,000 people travel out of jail any year, people go to jail over 11 million times any year. And a correctional complement doesn’t only finish with confinement. The U.S. probity […]

  17. America has nearly 1/2 a million people in jail who haven’t been convicted of committing a crime says, 7 months after publication:

    […] Every year, 636,000 people walk out of America’s numerous prisons, but 11 million people cycle through our jails each year! […]

  18. Don Lloyd says, 7 months after publication:

    So, what do we do to advocate individuals that have received unjust sentences. Our son robbed a dry cleaners for 300 dollars. He had a firearm. The DA convinced the Federal Prosecutor to apply Federal charges. Why? Our son interfered with enter state commerce. He was given nine years! Nine! He has served three. He was on drugs when he robbed this dry cleaners. He has been shipped all over and is now in the USP Cannan. He is living in hell but no one cares except his mom and me. He was molested at 12 but the judge Katharine Eagles just simply didn’t care.

    What does a parent do?

  19. Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2016 - Justice Not Jails says, 7 months, 1 week after publication:

    […] justice system. Every year, 636,000 people walk out of prison gates, but people go to jail over 11 million times each year. Jail churn is particularly high because most people in jails have not been convicted. Some have […]

  20. 2:00PM Water Cooler 3/24/2016 | naked capitalism says, 7 months, 1 week after publication:

    […] (Source here.) […]

  21. Majority Of People In U.S. Jails Have Not Been Convicted Of A Crime | Care2 Causes says, 7 months, 3 weeks after publication:

    […] […]

  22. Loretta Lynch: Remove roadblocks faced by former prisoners re-entering society | wisdomparliament says, 8 months, 2 weeks after publication:

    […] than 600,000 people return to our communities after serving time in federal and state prisons, and another 11.4 million cycle though local jails.  Research shows that economic opportunity, education, strong family bonds and civic engagement […]

  23. Loretta Lynch: Remove roadblocks faced by former prisoners re-entering society - ABC Featured says, 8 months, 2 weeks after publication:

    […] than 600,000 people return to our communities after serving time in federal and state prisons, and another 11.4 million cycle though local jails.  Research shows that economic opportunity, education, strong family bonds and civic engagement […]

  24. Loretta Lynch: Remove roadblocks faced by former prisoners re-entering society - Government Jobs Today says, 8 months, 2 weeks after publication:

    […] than 600,000 people lapse to a communities after portion time in sovereign and state prisons, and another 11.4 million cycle yet internal jails.  Research shows that mercantile opportunity, education, clever family bonds and county […]

  25. Attorney General Loretta Lynch cites PPI this National Reentry Week | Prison Policy Initiative says, 8 months, 2 weeks after publication:

    […] to see the Attorney General cite our report, Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie, and our blog post, Jails matter. But who is listening?, in order to express the enormous churn in and out of our correctional facilities and the far […]

  26. Loretta Lynch: Remove roadblocks faced by former prisoners re-entering society - Farmissy says, 8 months, 2 weeks after publication:

    […] than 600,000 people return to our communities after serving time in federal and state prisons, and another 11.4 million cycle though local jails.  Research shows that economic opportunity, education, strong family bonds and civic engagement […]

  27. Detaining the Poor: How money bail perpetuates an endless cycle of poverty and jail time | Moorbey'z Blog says, 9 months, 1 week after publication:

    […] been flat for the last 15 years. Detention of the legally innocent has been consistently driving jail growth, and the criminal justice reform discussion must include a discussion of local jails and the need […]

  28. criminalization of poverty | Wandervogel Diary says, 9 months, 1 week after publication:

    […] people are in American jails, but there is also tremendous churn in and out of the jail system—11.4 million admissions in 2014 […]

  29. Jail conviction status animated GIF | Prison Policy Initiative says, 9 months, 2 weeks after publication:

    […] made a graph for his article Jails matter. But who is listening?, and an animated version for the Detaining the Poor: How money bail perpetuates an endless cycle of […]

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