Can it really be true that most people in jail are being held before trial? And how much of mass incarceration is a result of the war on drugs? These questions are harder to answer than you might think, because our country’s systems of confinement are so fragmented. The various government agencies involved in the justice system collect a lot of critical data, but it is not designed to help policymakers or the public understand what’s going on. Meaningful criminal justice reform that reduces the massive scale of incarceration, however, requires that we start with the big picture.
This report offers some much needed clarity by piecing together this country’s disparate systems of confinement. The American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 1,852 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.1 And we go deeper to provide further detail on why people are locked up in all of those different types of facilities.
This big-picture view allows us to focus on the most important drivers of mass incarceration and identify important, but often ignored, systems of confinement. The detailed views bring these overlooked parts of the “pie” to light, from immigration detention to civil commitment and youth confinement. In particular, local jails often receive short shrift in larger discussions about criminal justice, but they play a critical role as “incarceration’s front door” and have a far greater impact than the daily number suggests.
While this pie chart provides a comprehensive snapshot of our correctional system, the graphic does not capture the enormous churn in and out of our correctional facilities and the far larger universe of people whose lives are affected by the criminal justice system. Every year, 626,000 people walk out of prison gates, but people go to jail 10.6 million times each year.2 Jail churn is particularly high because most people in jails3 have not been convicted. Some have just been arrested and will make bail in the next few hours or days, and others are too poor to make bail and must remain behind bars until their trial. Only a small number (150,000 on any given day) have been convicted, generally serving misdemeanors sentences under a year.
With a sense of the big picture, a common follow-up question might be: how many people are locked up for a drug offense? We know that almost half a million people are locked up because of a drug offense.4 The data confirms that nonviolent drug convictions are a defining characteristic of the federal prison system, but play only a supporting role at the state and local levels. While most people in state and local facilities are not locked up for drug offenses, most states’ continued practice of arresting people for drug possession5 destabilizes individual lives and communities. Drug arrests give residents of over-policed communities criminal records, which then reduce employment prospects and increase the likelihood of longer sentences for any future offenses.
The criminal justice system involves some complicated decisions and relationships, some — but not all — of which can be represented graphically. For example, it’s easy to show how jails rent space to state and federal agencies, and that 5,000 youth are actually in adult facilities.6 But the offense data oversimplifies how people interact with the criminal justice system. A person in prison for multiple offenses is reported only for the most serious offense7 so, for example, there are people in prison for “violent” offenses who might have also been convicted of a drug offense. Further, almost all convictions are the result of plea bargains, where people plead guilty to a lesser offense, perhaps of a different category or one that they may not have actually committed.
And many of these categories group together people convicted of a wide range of offenses. For example, “murder” is generally considered to be an extremely serious offense, but “murder” groups together the rare group of serial killers with people who committed acts that are unlikely for reasons of circumstance or advanced age to ever happen again. It also includes offenses that the average American may not consider to be murder at all. For example, the felony murder rule says that if someone dies during the commission of a felony, everyone involved can be as guilty of murder as the person who pulled the trigger. Driving a getaway car during a bank robbery where someone was accidentally killed is indeed a serious offense, but many may be surprised that this is considered murder.8
Breaking down incarceration by offense type also exposes some disturbing facts about the youth confined by our criminal and juvenile justice systems: Too many are there for a “most serious offense” that is not even a crime. For example, there are over 8,500 youth behind bars for “technical violations” of the requirements of their probation, rather than for a new offense. Further, 2,300 youth are locked up for “status” offenses, which are “behaviors that are not law violations for adults, such as running away, truancy, and incorrigibility.”9 Nearly 1 in 10 is held in an adult jail or prison, and most of the others are held in juvenile facilities that look and operate a lot like prisons and jails.
Turning to the people who are locked up criminally and civilly for immigration-related issues, we find that 13,000 people are in federal prison for criminal convictions of violating federal immigration laws, and 13,000 more are held pretrial by U.S. Marshals. Another 34,000 are civilly detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) separate from any criminal proceedings and are physically confined in federally-run or privately-run immigration detention facilities or in local jails under contract with ICE. (Notably, these categories do not include immigrants represented in other pie slices because of non-immigration related criminal convictions.)
Adding to the universe of people who are confined because of justice system involvement, 22,000 people are involuntarily detained or committed to state psychiatric hospitals and civil commitment centers. Many of these people are not even convicted, and some are held indefinitely. 9,000 are being evaluated pre-trial or treated for incompetency to stand trial; 6,000 have been found not guilty by reason of insanity or guilty but mentally ill; another 6,000 are people convicted of sexual crimes who are involuntarily committed after their prison sentences are complete. While these facilities aren’t typically run by departments of correction, they are in reality much like prisons.
While this “whole pie” provides the most inclusive view of the various systems of confinement in the U.S. justice system available, these snapshots can’t capture all of the important systemic issues. Once we have wrapped our minds around the “whole pie” of mass incarceration, for example, we should zoom out and note that being locked up is just one piece of the larger pie of correctional control. There are another 840,000 people on parole and a staggering 3.7 million people on probation. Particularly given the often onerous conditions of probation, policymakers should be cautious of “alternatives to incarceration” that can easily widen the net of criminalization to people who are not a threat to public safety.
Beyond identifying the parts of the criminal justice system that impact the most people, we should also focus on who is most impacted and who is left behind by policy change. For example, people of color are dramatically overrepresented in the nation’s prisons and jails. These racial disparities are particularly stark for Blacks, who make up 40% of the incarcerated population despite representing only 13% of U.S residents. Gender disparities matter too: rates of incarceration have grown even faster for women than for men. As policymakers continue to push for reforms that reduce incarceration, they should avoid changes that will widen disparities, as has happened with juvenile confinement and with women in state prisons.
Now, armed with the big picture of how many people are locked up in the United States, where, and why, we have a better foundation for the long overdue conversation about criminal justice reform. For example, the data makes it clear that ending the War on Drugs will not alone end mass incarceration, but that the federal government and some states have effectively reduced their incarcerated populations by turning to drug policy reform. Looking at the “whole pie” also opens up other conversations about where we should focus our energies:
Now that we can see the big picture of how many people are locked up in the United States in the various types of facilities, we can see that something needs to change. Looking at the big picture requires us to ask if it really makes sense to lock up 2.3 million people on any given day, giving this nation the dubious distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world. Both policymakers and the public have the responsibility to carefully consider each individual slice in turn to ask whether legitimate social goals are served by putting each category behind bars, and whether any benefit really outweighs the social and fiscal costs.
Even narrow policy changes, like reforms to money bail, can meaningfully reduce our society’s use of incarceration. Meanwhile, some reforms that seem promising have minimal effect, because they simply transfer people from one slice of the correctional “pie” to another. Keeping the big picture in mind is critical if we hope to develop strategies that actually shrink the “whole pie.”
People new to criminal justice issues might reasonably expect that a big picture analysis like this would be produced not by reform advocates, but by the criminal justice system itself. The unfortunate reality is that there isn’t one centralized criminal justice system to do such an analysis. Instead, even thinking just about adult corrections, we have a federal system, 50 state systems, 3,000+ county systems and 25,000+ municipal systems, and so on. Each of these systems collects data for its own purposes that may or may not be compatible with data from other systems, and that might duplicate or omit people counted by other systems.
This isn’t to discount the work of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which, despite limited resources, undertakes the Herculean task of organizing and standardizing the data on correctional facilities. And it’s not to say that the FBI doesn’t work hard to aggregate and standardize police arrest and crime report data. But the basic reason why so many simple-sounding questions about criminal justice are in fact unanswerable is the “system” wasn’t set up to answer them.
Similarly, there are systems involved in the confinement of justice-involved people that might not consider themselves part of the criminal justice system, but should be included in a holistic view of incarceration. Juvenile justice, civil detention and commitment, and commitment to psychiatric hospitals for criminal justice involvement are examples of this broader universe of confinement. The “whole pie” incorporates data from these systems to provide the most comprehensive view of incarceration possible.
To produce this report, we took the most recent data available for each part of these systems, and where necessary adjusted the data to ensure that each person was only counted once, only once, and in the right place.
Before explaining the data sources, we want to explain several methodology changes that make this report not directly comparable with past reports, including:
This briefing uses the most recent data available on the number of people in various types of facilities and the most significant charge or conviction. Because not all types of data are collected each year, we sometimes had to, for example, apply the percentage distribution of offense types from the previous year to the current year’s total count data. For this reason, we chose to round most labels in the graphics to the nearest thousand, except where rounding to the nearest ten, nearest one hundred, or (in two cases in the jails detail slide) the nearest 500 was more informative in that context. This rounding process may also result in some parts not adding up precisely to the total.
Our data sources were:
To avoid counting anyone twice, we performed the following adjustments:
All Prison Policy Initiative reports are collaborative endeavors, but this report builds on the successful collaborations of the 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 versions. For this year’s report, the authors are particularly indebted to César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández for his feedback and research pointers on immigration detention, Ann Carson and Todd Minton for helping us understand the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ data on jails, Joshua Aiken for improving our methodology about jail boarding, Jack Donson, Judy Greene, and Carl Takei for helping us identify data on the U.S. Marshals Service, Neelum Arya and Shaena Fazal for guidance on youth confinement, Shan Jumper for sharing updated civil detention and commitment data, and Vera Hollen and Amanda Wik of NRI for answering our questions about the data on forensic patients. This year, we are again grateful to Jordan Miner for making the report interactive, and Elydah Joyce for her help with the design. Any errors or omissions, and final responsibility for all of the many value judgements required to produce a data visualization like this, however, are the sole responsibility of the authors.
We thank the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge for their support of our research into the use and misuse of jails in this country. We also thank the Public Welfare Foundation and each of our individual donors who give us the resources and the flexibility to quickly turn our insights into new movement resources.
Peter Wagner is an attorney and the Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative. He co-founded the Prison Policy Initiative in 2001 in order to spark a national discussion about the negative side effects of mass incarceration. His research and advocacy on the issue of prison gerrymandering have led four states and more than 200 local governments to end prison gerrymandering.
Some of his most recent work includes Following the Money of Mass Incarceration, uncovering that prisons are disproportionately built in White areas, and working with Josh Begley to put each state’s overuse of incarceration into the international context.
He is @PWPolicy on Twitter.
Wendy Sawyer is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. She is the author of the 2018 reports Youth Confinement: The Whole Pie and The Gender Divide: Tracking women's state prison growth, as well as the 2016 report Punishing Poverty: The high cost of probation fees in Massachusetts.
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. Alongside reports like this that help the public more fully engage in criminal justice reform, the organization leads the nation’s fight to keep the prison system from exerting undue influence on the political process (a.k.a. prison gerrymandering) and plays a leading role in protecting the families of incarcerated people from the predatory prison and jail telephone industry and the video visitation industry.
The number of state and federal facilities is from Census of State and Federal Correctional Facilities, 2005, the number of youth facilities is from page 3 of Juvenile Residential Facility Census, 2014, the number of jails from Census of Jails: Population Changes, 1999-2013 and the number of Indian Country jails from Jails in Indian Country, 2016. We aren’t currently aware of a good source of data on the number of the facilities of the other types. ↩
10.6 million jail admissions probably amounts to less than 10.6 million unique individuals cycling through jails in a year. According to a presentation, The Importance of Successful Reentry to Jail Population Growth [Powerpoint] given at The Jail Reentry Roundtable, Bureau of Justice Statistics statistician Allen Beck estimates that of the 12-12.6 million jail admissions in 2004-2005, 9 million were unique individuals. ↩
The local jail population in the main pie chart (614,922) reflects only the population under local jurisdiction; it excludes the people being held in jails for other state and federal agencies. The population under local jurisdiction is smaller than the population (731,300) physically located in jails on an average day in 2016, often called the custody population. (For this distinction, see the second image in the first slideshow above.) The “not convicted” population is driving jail growth. ↩
The data doesn’t show how many people are convicted of drug law violations and are held in territorial prisons or Indian Country jails. ↩
In 2015, there were 1,448,707 drug arrests in the U.S., the far majority of which were for drug possession or use rather than for sale or manufacturing. See Crime in the US 2015 table 29 and the arrests table. ↩
The federal government defines the hierarchy of offenses with felonies higher than misdemeanors. And “[w]ithin these levels, … the hierarchy from most to least serious is as follows: homicide, rape/other sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny/ motor vehicle theft, fraud, drug trafficking, drug possession, weapons offense, driving under the influence, other public-order, and other.” See page 13 Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994. ↩
The felony murder rule has also been applied when the person who died was a participant in the crime. For example, in some jurisdictions, if one of the bank robbers is killed by the police during a chase, the surviving bank robbers can be convicted of felony murder of their colleague. For example see People v. Hudson, 222 Ill. 2d 392 (Ill. 2006) and People v. Klebanowski, 221 Ill. 2d 538 (Ill. 2006) ↩
Our report on the pre-incarceration incomes of those imprisoned in state prisons, Prisons of Poverty: Uncovering the pre-incarceration incomes of the imprisoned, found that, in 2014 dollars, incarcerated people had a median annual income that is 41% less than non-incarcerated people of similar ages. Our analysis of similar jail data in Detaining the Poor: How money bail perpetuates an endless cycle of poverty and jail time found that people in jail have even lower incomes, a median annual income that is 54% less than non-incarcerated people of similar ages. ↩
Notably, the number of people admitted to immigration detention in a year is much higher than the population detained on a particular day. The immigration detention system took in 323,591 people during the course of fiscal year 2016. ↩