Jail incarceration rates vary widely, but inexplicably, across U.S. cities

Cities jail people at rates that have little to no correlation to their violent crime rates, police budgets, or jail budgets.

by Tiana Herring, May 4, 2021

Why do some places incarcerate people at much higher rates than others? We considered this question in 2019, when we compared prison incarceration rates across U.S. counties, finding a wide range that loosely correlated to the respective state imprisonment rates. Now, we can do the same for jail incarceration rates. While it’s difficult to find jail incarceration data at the city level, this data is available by county in the Vera Institute of Justice’s Incarceration Trends Database. Using this database, we considered 63 highly populated cities,1 and calculated the overall jail incarceration rate and pretrial detention rate of each city’s surrounding county.2 We found that, like prison incarceration rates, jail detention rates vary significantly. But unlike our study of prison incarceration rates, we could find no obvious explanation: neither violent crime rates, local police budgets, nor local jail budgets explained the large differences from city to city. These variations mean that your chances of being put in jail can depend on something as arbitrary as the city you live in.

Jail and pretrial detention rates are important for showing just how deeply mass incarceration is affecting your local community. Jails are the “front door” of the criminal justice system. In 2019 alone, there were more than 10.3 million admissions into U.S. jails. Black and low-income people are disproportionately affected by repeat arrests, and are more likely to be held pretrial simply because they cannot afford bail, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and incarceration. Even short stays in jail can have a major impact on people’s livelihoods, threatening their ability to keep their jobs and housing, and straining familial relationships. This harm is unnecessary, though; as our research has shown, reforms that allow more people to return home pretrial were not associated with rising crime rates in the states, cities, and counties we analyzed.

Rates are per 100,000 county residents. In its database, the Vera Institute of Justice presents rates for counties per 100,000 residents aged 15-64. For our analysis, we recalculated the rates using the counties’ total populations, using population counts from the Vera Institute of Justice’s downloadable dataset, to make the figures comparable to other criminal justice data. The data exclude people held in jails on behalf of federal authorities, such as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Marshals Service.
City State County Jail detention rate (per 100,000 county residents) Pretrial detention rate (per 100,000 county residents)
Memphis Tenn. Shelby County 491 245
New Orleans La. Orleans Parish 397 301
St. Louis Mo. None 393 395
Philadelphia Pa. Philadelphia County 389 257
Nashville Tenn. Davidson County 361 191
Baltimore Md. None 331 330
Virginia Beach Va. None 328 148
Louisville Ky. Jefferson County 308 171
Fresno Calif. Fresno County 305 221
Jacksonville Fla. Duval County 297 119
Denver Colo. Denver County 295 205
Washington, D.C. D.C. None 294 158
Charleston S.C. Charleston County 286 229
Atlanta Ga. Fulton County 279 198
Colorado Springs Colo. El Paso County 279 111
El Paso Texas El Paso County 277 177
Little Rock Ark. Pulaski County 272 203
Newark N.J. Essex County 262 242
Jackson Miss. Hinds County 259 252
Charleston W. Va. Kanawha County 254 193
Las Vegas Nev. Clark County 251 132
Indianapolis Ind. Marion County 249 189
Birmingham Ala. Jefferson County 249 179
Tulsa Okla. Tulsa County 248 172
Billings Mont. Yellowstone County 246 224
Oklahoma City Okla. Oklahoma County 243 173
Milwaukee Wis. Milwaukee County 240 126
Sacramento Calif. Sacramento County 235 116
Boise Idaho Ada County 232 205
Wichita Kan. Sedgwick County 230 171
Omaha Neb. Douglas County 225 204
Cheyenne Wyo. Laramie County 223 201
Tampa Fla. Hillsborough County 211 145
Salt Lake City Utah Salt Lake County 208 191
Des Moines Iowa Polk County 206 174
Boston Mass. Suffolk County 201 118
Dallas Texas Dallas County 198 152
Austin Texas Travis County 195 143
San Antonio Texas Bexar County 195 184
Houston Texas Harris County 185 141
Albuquerque N.M. Bernalillo County 179 187
Tucson Ariz. Pima County 178 147
San Diego Calif. San Diego County 176 82
Sioux Falls S.D. Minnehaha County 174 174
San Jose Calif. Santa Clara County 172 127
Phoenix Ariz. Maricopa County 171 131
Los Angeles Calif. Los Angeles County 170 105
Columbus Ohio Franklin County 169 133
Fort Worth Texas Tarrant County 168 121
Fargo N.D. Cass County 154 155
Portland Maine Cumberland County 154 90
Miami Fla. Miami-Dade County 149 112
Charlotte N.C. Mecklenburg County 143 125
San Francisco Calif. San Francisco County 143 118
Kansas City Mo. Jackson County 140 120
Seattle Wash. King County 137 107
Portland Ore. Multnomah County 134 106
Chicago Ill. Cook County 126 113
Raleigh N.C. Wake County 111 101
Detroit Mich. Wayne County 107 64
Manchester N.H. Hillsborough County 100 53
Minneapolis Minn. Hennepin County 99 62
New York N.Y. 5 NYC Counties 98 71

 

Varying detention rates defy any logical explanation

We found that jail incarceration and pretrial detention rates vary greatly from city to city. There are some high outliers; Memphis, Tenn., for example, has a total jail detention rate of 491 per 100,000 residents, far above the average jail detention rate across the 63 cities of 225 per 100,000. On the other end of the spectrum, cities like New York and Minneapolis jail fewer than 100 residents per 100,000. Similarly, the pretrial detention rates in St. Louis and Baltimore (395 and 330 per 100,000, respectively) are more than double the average pretrial detention rate for the cities we studied, which was 163 per 100,000. We considered various possible explanations for the drastic differences from city to city, but didn’t find many consistent trends.

Local crime rates don’t consistently explain jail detention rates

First, we used the FBI’s Universal Crime Reporting program data to analyze the cities’ violent crime and total crime rates, to see if high rates of crime correlated with high rates of detention.3 Memphis, St. Louis, and Baltimore — all of which have notably high detention or pretrial detention rates — do in fact have the three highest violent and total crime rates of the cities for which we were able to obtain data.4 This pattern isn’t consistent across other cities, though. For example, Charleston, S.C., has some of the highest jail detention and pretrial detention rates, yet its violent crime and total crime rates rank among the lowest of these cities. On the other end of the spectrum, Detroit boasts very low detention rates, but has a relatively high violent crime rate.

It’s also difficult to know how directly violent crime is actually impacting detention rates because other factors likely influence both crime and incarceration. Poverty, addiction, and a lack of social services, for example, could contribute separately to high rates of both crime and jail detention. In fact, detention itself has been shown to increase the odds of future offending, which is counterproductive from a crime rate-defined public safety standpoint.

Local police and jail budgets don’t explain jail rates, either

Next, we explored whether police budgets were correlated with jail and pretrial detention rates. Using the Vera Institute of Justice’s police budget data, we examined the percent of city funds spent on policing and the number of city dollars per resident allocated to the police. Our analysis did not reveal any noteworthy connections between these measures and local jail rates, however.

The Vera Institute of Justice also provides data on the jail budgets in major cities and the number of county dollars spent per resident specifically on jails. Again, we found no strong correlations between jail budgets and jail incarceration rates. The only notable finding is a correlation between changes in jail population and changes in jail budgets since 2011: Cities that reduced their jail budgets (or avoided large increases) also reduced their jail populations more dramatically. While this may not be particularly surprising, it does suggest that cutting jail budgets could help communities reduce the number of people cycling through jails, while freeing up money to be used elsewhere, like schools.

scatterplot graph showing changes in jail budgets since 2011 versus changes in jail populations since 2011. Cities that reduced jail budgets also saw reduced jail populations.

In many places, the effects of bail reform remain to be seen

A number of cities and states included in this analysis, such as Philadelphia and Dallas, have enacted bail reforms in the past few years. However, since most of these changes occurred after 2018 — the most recent year for which the Vera Institute of Justice’s jail detention data are available — the data we used for this analysis do not yet show the effects of those reforms. Ultimately, these reforms should result in reduced pretrial detention rates. Current data show bail reforms have an impact on overall jail detention as well, since the pretrial population makes up about two-thirds of jail populations nationwide.

In New Jersey, for example, pretrial detention populations decreased by 50 percent from 2015 to 2018 – which was just one year after reforms were implemented. Additionally, New Jersey and San Francisco both saw at least 45 percent decreases in their overall jail populations after instituting bail reforms. We hope and expect these reforms (and others implemented more recently) will continue to lower rates of pretrial incarceration in cities and counties across the country.

While there isn’t a clear explanation for why jail incarceration and pretrial detention rates vary so much from city to city, it is clear that too many people cycle through jails each year, and reforms are long overdue. City leaders need to start investing in their communities instead of jails by expanding access to health care and social services, and implementing alternatives to incarceration.

 

Appendix

City State County Jail detention rate (per 100,000 county residents) Pretrial detention rate (per 100,000 county residents) Violent crime rate (per 100,000 county residents) Total crime rate (per 100,000 county residents) Policing budget Jail budget Jail population change since 2011 Jail budget change since 2011
Albuquerque N.M. Bernalillo County 179 187 no data no data $211,084,000 $77,707,756 -52% -13%
Atlanta Ga. Fulton County 279 198 no data no data $248,508,775 $90,484,158 8% 13%
Austin Texas Travis County 195 143 380 3,569 $491,265,529 $99,791,862 -31% 17%
Baltimore Md. None 331 330 1,843 6,116 $549,046,349 no data no data no data
Billings Mont. Yellowstone County 246 224 no data no data $27,017,423 $13,708,860 26% 69%
Birmingham Ala. Jefferson County 249 179 no data no data $92,775,797 no data no data no data
Boise Idaho Ada County 232 205 193 1,097 $70,561,456 $28,435,821 -8% 20%
Boston Mass. Suffolk County 201 118 no data no data $431,731,291 no data no data no data
Charleston S.C. Charleston County 286 229 196 1,384 $53,445,152 $40,081,245 -53% 9%
Charleston W. Va. Kanawha County 254 193 no data no data $22,489,588 $4,775,000 29% -4%
Charlotte N.C. Mecklenburg County 143 125 no data no data $285,877,585 $90,941,557 -31% -5%
Cheyenne Wyo. Laramie County 223 201 no data no data $14,493,787 $12,834,792 47% 35%
Chicago Ill. Cook County 126 113 497 2,076 $1,776,930,437 $437,932,791 -44% 40%
Colorado Springs Colo. El Paso County 279 111 461 3,254 $140,388,709 no data no data no data
Columbus Ohio Franklin County 169 133 no data no data $347,780,657 $82,811,353 -21% 19%
Dallas Texas Dallas County 198 152 406 2,275 $545,974,490 $143,920,841 -19% 20%
Denver Colo. Denver County 295 205 no data no data $277,927,093 $118,219,314 -29% 22%
Des Moines Iowa Polk County 206 174 342 2,344 $71,546,587 $38,268,987 -22% 10%
Detroit Mich. Wayne County 107 64 745 2,372 $318,193,356 $132,556,915 -43% 14%
El Paso Texas El Paso County 277 177 319 1,629 $157,607,718 $73,784,469 8% 1%
Fargo N.D. Cass County 154 155 326 2,595 $22,832,341 $14,171,961 2% 42%
Fort Worth Texas Tarrant County 168 121 201 1,417 $352,893,268 no data no data no data
Fresno Calif. Fresno County 305 221 no data no data $201,764,000 no data no data no data
Houston Texas Harris County 185 141 694 3,764 $899,879,053 no data no data no data
Indianapolis Ind. Marion County 249 189 no data no data $283,571,003 no data no data no data
Jackson Miss. Hinds County 259 252 no data no data $37,523,140 no data no data no data
Jacksonville Fla. Duval County 297 119 no data no data $481,594,597 $124,301,200 -18% 17%
Kansas City Mo. Jackson County 140 120 no data no data $262,247,405 $29,623,840 -15% 31%
Las Vegas Nev. Clark County 251 132 no data no data $173,702,925 $286,998,563 -12% 36%
Little Rock Ark. Pulaski County 272 203 875 4,385 $80,209,890 no data no data no data
Los Angeles Calif. Los Angeles County 170 105 346 1,442 $1,735,493,169 $1,347,462,000 -5% 44%
Louisville Ky. Jefferson County 308 171 602 4,014 $191,988,200 $56,639,000 -38% -1%
Manchester N.H. Hillsborough County 100 53 no data no data $25,285,675 no data no data no data
Memphis Tenn. Shelby County 491 245 1,382 5,906 $274,511,008 $138,591,511 -29% -8%
Miami Fla. Miami-Dade County 149 112 297 2,088 $281,251,000 $383,686,000 -35% 12%
Milwaukee Wis. Milwaukee County 240 126 842 2,444 $321,470,403 no data no data no data
Minneapolis Minn. Hennepin County 99 62 318 1,868 $193,360,000 $74,904,183 -44% 22%
Nashville Tenn. Davidson County 361 191 no data no data $216,790,900 $56,703,800 -33% -12%
New Orleans La. Orleans Parish 397 301 no data no data $206,887,632 $73,312,897 -73% -7%
New York N.Y. 5 NYC Counties 98 71 no data no data $11,036,298,140 $2,307,064,976 -58% -1%
Newark N.J. Essex County 262 242 no data no data $207,955,896 no data no data no data
Oklahoma City Okla. Oklahoma County 243 173 604 4,029 $226,626,456 no data no data no data
Omaha Neb. Douglas County 225 204 521 3,652 $159,838,743 $54,353,577 -4% 55%
Philadelphia Pa. Philadelphia County 389 257 no data no data $956,632,151 $220,169,920 -45% -18%
Phoenix Ariz. Maricopa County 171 131 no data no data $909,129,491 no data no data no data
Portland Maine Cumberland County 154 90 65 746 $17,757,540 $20,579,182 -28% 16%
Portland Ore. Multnomah County 134 106 464 4,917 $238,190,326 $109,598,622 -35% 18%
Raleigh N.C. Wake County 111 101 132 1,038 $109,694,902 $50,109,750 -7% 55%
Sacramento Calif. Sacramento County 235 116 365 1,950 $184,342,524 no data no data no data
Salt Lake City Utah Salt Lake County 208 191 189 1,876 $82,235,729 $105,080,518 -36% 32%
San Antonio Texas Bexar County 195 184 591 4,253 $479,091,284 $72,653,612 -3% 7%
San Diego Calif. San Diego County 176 82 201 1,141 $542,087,473 $387,184,895 -10% 63%
San Francisco Calif. San Francisco County 143 118 no data no data $706,182,301 no data no data no data
San Jose Calif. Santa Clara County 172 127 254 1,631 $473,208,901 $243,451,168 -38% 15%
Seattle Wash. King County 137 107 227 1,927 $440,240,547 $208,640,119 -39% 20%
Sioux Falls S.D. Minnehaha County 174 174 493 3,589 $41,028,140 $17,020,439 -6% 53%
St. Louis Mo. None 393 395 1,913 8,049 $154,870,227 $35,382,770 -46% -8%
Tampa Fla. Hillsborough County 211 145 235 1,479 $176,982,462 $192,045,470 -27% 4%
Tucson Ariz. Pima County 178 147 no data no data $193,274,430 $52,554,404 -2% 0%
Tulsa Okla. Tulsa County 248 172 647 4,080 $121,682,000 no data no data no data
Virginia Beach Va. None 328 148 129 1,885 $102,960,533 $40,694,736 -14% 21%
Washington, D.C. D.C. None 294 158 982 5,247 $655,379,632 $203,529,000 -51% 21%
Wichita Kan. Sedgwick County 230 171 885 4,967 $89,245,584 $33,793,490 -2% 6%

 

Footnotes

  1. These cities represent some of the 50 largest cities across the country, as well as the largest cities in each state.  ↩

  2. Four cities – Baltimore, St. Louis, Virginia Beach, Va., and Washington, D.C. – are independent cities not part of a county. In these cases, the Vera Institute of Justice reported the detention rate for the cities themselves.  ↩

  3. We calculated violent crime and total crime rates for the 38 cities and counties for which the FBI had complete data. We did this by adding the reported crime counts from the city police and corresponding county sheriff’s offices together. (For independent cities, we only used the crime counts from city police.) Then, to calculate the rates, we used the populations for each county as reported in the Vera Institute of Justice’s Trends dataset, which was the same population used to calculate the jail and pretrial detention rates in this briefing.  ↩

  4. It’s difficult to compare cities because there are a multitude of factors that could explain differing crime rates. However, the FBI’s UCR data is the closest we can get to having somewhat standardized data across multiple cities and counties.  ↩

Tiana Herring is a Research Associate at the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)

2 responses:

  1. John Neff says:

    Pretrial detention practices can differ depending on the judges and the the county attorney. In Philadelphia a number of years ago the jail population abruptly decreased for two reasons. The first was the county attorney wanted to cut the case load and dismissed charges were conviction was doubtful and also reduced charges where there was weak evidence.

    The second was that instead of having some of the sentences served in county jails they were served in state prisons. Neither the county attorney or the state told the sheriff what they were doing.

    If the state prison is full nobody can enter until someone is release and the new prison admits have to wait in a county jail until a prison bed become available. Some counties will not put up with this. I was in Alabama when that happened. The sheriffs brought prisoners to the prison in buses and handcuffed them to the fence.

    1. Thanks for sharing your firsthand knowledge about this, John.

Leave a Comment

Please note: Comments are moderated and there may be a delay before your comment appears. There is no need to resubmit your comment.



Stay Informed


Get the latest updates:



Tweet this page Donate