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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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
231,000 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.
See all reports and campaigns
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.
- Not an alternative: The myths, harms, and expansion of pretrial electronic monitoring, by Emmett Sanders, October 30, 2023
Many cities and states are expanding their use of electronic ankle monitors to surveil people released from jail pretrial. But a growing body of research shows this technology is not an effective tool for reducing pretrial populations — and, in fact, opens up new pathways to incarceration.
- High stakes mistakes: How courts respond to “failure to appear”, by Brian Nam-Sonenstein, August 15, 2023
Research shows that while most people who miss court are not dangerous or evading justice, the way courts treat “failure to appear” may make our communities less safe.
- Releasing people pretrial doesn't harm public safety, by Sarah Staudt, July 6, 2023
We found four states and nine municipalities that have implemented pretrial reforms and actually measured the results. All of these jurisdictions saw decreases or negligible increases in crime or re-arrest rates after implementing reforms.
- Racial disparities in diversion: A research roundup, by Leah Wang, March 7, 2023
Research shows diversion "works," reducing harmful outcomes and increasing access to social services. However, studies also suggest diversion is routinely denied to people of color, sending them deeper into the criminal legal system. We review the research and remind practitioners that most diversion programs aren't designed around racial equity — but should be.
- Jail-based polling locations: A way to fight voter disenfranchisement, by Naila Awan, October 25, 2022
Evidence from seven jail-based polling locations shows that it is not only feasible but effective.
- What does successful bail reform look like? To start, look to Harris County, Texas., by Emily Widra, March 28, 2022
New data supports what advocates have been saying all along: there's no need to detain so many people pretrial.
- New data: The changes in prisons, jails, probation, and parole in the first year of the pandemic, by Wendy Sawyer, January 11, 2022
Even under the pressure of the pandemic, local jails held a larger share of unconvicted people than ever, and continued to hold far too many people for low-level offenses and technical violations.
- Smoke and mirrors: A cautionary tale for counties considering a big, costly new jail, by Wendy Sawyer, July 6, 2021
How law enforcement and jail architects almost duped taxpayers into approving a new jail far bigger than the county needs, by offering biased analysis and misleading arguments.
- Rise in jail deaths is especially troubling as jail populations become more rural and more female, by Leah Wang, June 23, 2021
New data show record high deaths of people locked up in jail, as jail populations have shifted toward smaller, rural jails and growing numbers of women. A lack of accountability and acknowledgement of women's unique disadvantages all but ensures more deaths to come.
- Jail incarceration rates vary widely, but inexplicably, across U.S. cities, by Tiana Herring, May 4, 2021
Cities jail people at rates that have little to no correlation to their violent crime rates, police budgets, or jail budgets.
- It's all about the incentives: Why a call home from a jail in New York State can cost 7 times more than the same call from the state's prisons, by Katie Rose Quandt and Andrea Fenster, March 23, 2021
We find that most of the cost of an average jail phone call in New York -- 64 cents on the dollar -- is kicked back from the service provider to the county or jail.
- New data on jail populations: The good, the bad, and the ugly, by Alexi Jones and Wendy Sawyer, March 17, 2021
A new BJS report shows that U.S. jails reduced their populations by 25% in the first few months of the pandemic. But even then, the U.S. was still putting more people in local jails than most countries incarcerate in total.
- People in jails are using more phone minutes during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite decreased jail populations, by Andrea Fenster, January 25, 2021
Our study of 14 jails finds that there were 8% more overall minutes used during the pandemic, despite the fact that nationwide jail populations have fallen about 15%.
- New BJS data reveals a jail-building boom in Indian country, by Emily Widra, Wanda Bertram, and Wendy Sawyer, October 30, 2020
Across the country, local governments are building more jail space rather than working to reduce incarceration. New data shows that this trend is especially visible on tribal lands.
- Technical difficulties: D.C. data shows how minor supervision violations contribute to excessive jailing, by Andrea Fenster, October 28, 2020
Using D.C. as a case study, we explain how much non-criminal - and often drug related - "technical" violations of probation and parole contribute to unnecessary jail incarceration.
- The "services" offered by jails don't make them safe places for vulnerable people, by Alexi Jones, March 19, 2020
In 2016, over 1,000 people died in local jails - many the tragic result of healthcare and jail systems that fail to address serious health problems among the jail population, and of the trauma of incarceration itself.
- Technical violations, immigration detainers, and other bad reasons to keep people in jail>, by Wendy Sawyer, Maddy Troilo, and Alexi Jones, March 18, 2020
How ICE and probation and parole detainers (or "holds") contribute to unnecessary jailing.
- How race impacts who is detained pretrial, by Wendy Sawyer, October 9, 2019
The government hasn't collected national data on the race or ethnicity of people awaiting trial in jail since 2002. We review the academic literature published since then to offer a more current assessment of racial disparities in pretrial detention.
- How many people in your state go to local jails every year? by Wanda Bertram and Alexi Jones, September 18, 2019.
Building on our national report Arrest, Release, Repeat, we show that local jails impact more people in your state than the daily population implies.
- Jails matter. But who is listening? by Peter Wagner, August 14, 2015.
Most of the people who go to prison or jail in a year go to jail, so why don't policymakers pay more attention to jails?
- Some private prisons are, um, public by Peter Wagner, June 9, 2016.
Private prisons get all the attention, but the hidden truth is that many county jails are profiting off incarceration too.
- Pretrial detention costs $13.6 billion each year by Bernadette Rabuy, February 7, 2017.
When we published our Following the Money of Mass Incarceration report, we also calculated the cost of locking people up before trial.
- The life-threatening reality of short jail stays by Bernadette Rabuy, December 22, 2016.
BJS data shows suicide is still the leading cause of death in local jails. And most suicides occur shortly after jail admission.
- Why expensive phone calls can be life-altering for people in jail - and can derail the justice process by Wendy Sawyer, February 5, 2019.
The cost of jail phone calls punishes people in the most desperate circumstances, most of whom have not been convicted of a crime.
- How does unaffordable money bail affect families? by Wendy Sawyer, August 15, 2018.
Over half of the people held in jail pretrial because they can't afford bail are parents of minor children.
- The downstream effect of 35 years of jail growth? A state prison boom by Joshua Aiken, June 14, 2017.
Mass incarceration is not a question of prison or jail growth, but both: Putting more people behind bars for low-level crimes leads to entire justice systems bursting at the seams.
- Criminal justice reform at the ballot box: Even County Auditors are worth your attention by Wanda Bertram, October 31, 2018.
In some counties - like Multnomah County, Oregon - auditors are joining the movement to hold jails accountable.
- Jails will separate 2.3 million mothers from their children this year by Wendy Sawyer and Wanda Bertram, May 13, 2018.
In some counties - like Multnomah County, Oregon - auditors are joining the movement to hold jails accountable.
- Money and power: corruption in local sheriff departments by Stephen Raher, December 20, 2017.
A response to The New York Times's investigation of how corruption flourishes in some county sheriff offices.
- Findings from Harris County: Money bail undermines criminal justice goals by Wendy Sawyer and Emily Widra, August 24, 2017.
A recent study confirms that money bail increases risks to public safety, affects case outcomes in ways that contribute to more incarceration, and infringes on constitutional rights.
- Jail phone companies flood money into sheriff races by Aleks Kajstura, October 12, 2017.
New research shows jail phone companies contributing significant sums to sheriff's campaigns, even funding a quarter of one candidate's campaign spending.
- BJS report: Drug abuse and addiction at the root of 21% of crimes by Wendy Sawyer, June 28, 2017.
The widespread drug use and dependence among incarcerated people underscores the urgent need to redirect people and resources toward treatment.
- Analysis shows people in NYC jails would be better served in the community by Bernadette Rabuy, November 16, 2016.
A recent analysis finds that the most frequently incarcerated in New York City jails struggle with mental illness and are locked up for low-level offenses.
- Suicide in jails is a national crisis by Bernadette Rabuy, August 4, 2015.
BJS report shows that suicide in jails has been leading cause of death from 2000-2013.
- Who is in jail? Deep dive by Peter Wagner, December 8, 2015.
Jail churn and pre-trial detention are even more important than a quick look at the data suggests. Here, we correct for the fact that a sizable number of people are housed in jails for other agencies.
See all briefings
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.
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.
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.