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One out of every three people behind bars today is held in a county or city jail. The U.S. jail population has tripled over the last 30 years, driven by an increase in pretrial detention and money bail, policies that keep legally innocent people behind bars before trial and increase the likelihood that they will plead guilty.

We're putting the need for jail reform directly into the national conversation, helping both lawmakers and the public keep a close eye on jail growth and conditions. Below is some of our key research:


Reports and campaigns

report thumbnailMass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2024

How many people are in jail nationwide? Our report and graphics break down where people in the U.S. are incarcerated and why, including how many people are in local jails and what percentage are still legally innocent.

report thumbnailWomen's Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2024

190,600 women are locked up in the U.S., and more are held in local jails than in state prisons — in stark contrast to incarcerated men. Our report explains this trend and explores the impact of jail on women.

bail report cover All profit, no risk: how the bail industry exploits the legal system

We gathered evidence from throughout the country to show how bail companies exploit loopholes in the money bail system and use aggressive tactics to escape consequences when their clients don’t show up for court hearings, and explain why this yet another reason to end the money bail system.

report thumbnailBuilding exits off the highway to mass incarceration: Diversion programs explained

Diversion program" can refer to a wide variety of initiatives to keep people out of jail. We wrote one report that explains them all. Our report envisions the criminal justice process as a highway, with five major "exits" off the road to incarceration.

report thumbnailMass Incarceration, COVID-19, and Community Spread

Our report shows that over half a million cases of COVID-19 in the summer of 2020 — or 13% of all cases — were attributable to the passage of the virus into, through, and out of crowded prisons and jails.

report thumbnailEligible, but excluded: A guide to removing the barriers to jail voting

In partnership with Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow PUSH Coalition, we offer a concise guide to understanding which people in local jails are eligible to vote, and how to bring down barriers that these voters face to casting a ballot.

report thumbnailFailing Grades: States' Responses to COVID-19 in Jails & Prisons

We worked with the ACLU to evaluate -- and score -- all 50 states' criminal justice responses to the pandemic. Most states have ignored both the obvious risks to incarcerated people and the warnings of public health experts.

report thumbnailOther COVID-19 resources

In addition to our two major reports on COVID-19 in prisons and jails, we've published a list of policy recommendations, an explainer on social distancing behind bars, a powerful fact sheet, and much more. We're also tracking where pandemic-related policy changes are taking place.

report thumbnailArrest, Release, Repeat: How police and jails are misused to respond to social problems

Our national analysis finds that at least 4.9 million people go to county and city jails each year, over 25% go multiple times, and people who go to jail are disproportionately likely to be impoverished and face serious health problems.

report thumbnailDoes our county really need a bigger jail? A guide to avoiding unnecessary jail expansion

We lay out 33 questions that local decision-makers should ask before green-lighting proposals for jail expansion. We also explain ways that counties can reduce jail crowding without building additional jail space.

report thumbnailEra of Mass Expansion: Why State Officials Should Fight Jail Growth

What's behind the rapid jail growth of the last three decades? Our report exposes the key drivers — pretrial detention and the renting of jail beds to other authorities — with over 150 state-level graphs and state-by-state comparisons. (We updated data in this report in 2024.)

report thumbnailDetaining the Poor: How money bail perpetuates an endless cycle of poverty and jail time

We explain how the pretrial detention and bail process works. We also show why paying money bail is so difficult: For a typical defendant, money bail represents about eight months' pay, and even more for women and people of color.

See all reports and campaigns


Toolkits to fight jail expansion

  • Understanding jail assessments — When counties discuss building or expanding their jails, they often commission “jail assessments” to analyze current operations and recommend new construction. These assessments are usually dense, but riddled with obvious flaws. This guide helps you understand these documents and push back on jail construction proposals.

  • Arguments against jail expansion — The reflexive response to jail overcrowding is often to build a larger jail, but it is rarely the best solution. We’ve collected the resources and data to help advocates empower their communities and educate local decision makers about why jail expansion is not the answer.



See all briefings

issue thumbnailCommunication and contact

For people in jail, few services are more critical than visits and phone calls, which allow them to stay connected with their loved ones and lawyers. But jails make staying in touch expensive and difficult, particularly for poor families.

issue thumbnailExploitation

People in jail and their families are a captive market, one that private companies — in collusion with jail administrators — are all too eager to exploit. We are bringing these practices to light and fighting back.

Research Library

Didn't find what you were looking for? We also curate a database of virtually all the empirical criminal justice research available online. See the sections of our Research Library on jails and pretrial detention.

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