Jails Are Where Over-Incarceration Begins

  • Over 10.5 million people were admitted to jails in 2016 . That’s almost 17 times the annual admissions to state and federal prisons.
  • Three out of five people in jail are legally presumed innocent. They are being held while awaiting trial or a plea agreement.
  • About one of every seven men and nearly one of every three women admitted to jail has a serious mental illness. Those rates are many times higher than in the general population.
  • Nearly three of every four sentenced offenders and those detained pre-trial are there for non-violent offenses.
  • Blacks and Latinos are jailed at much higher rates than whites. Local jurisdictions spend more than $20 billion a year on their correctional institutions.
About Jails
Misuse and Overuse
The consequences
and costs

These are some of the findings that prompted the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 2015 to undertake the Safety and Justice Challenge, a philanthropic initiative that seeks to reduce the misuse and overuse of jails. Across the country 20 local jurisdictions are implementing comprehensive plans to reduce their jail populations and another 20 are designing and testing new approaches to the problem. Policy experts and researchers are developing evidence-based approaches to innovation. Meanwhile, communications efforts like this report seek to broaden understanding among policy makers and the public.

Jails are the gateways to prisons. Reducing the jail population is thus a strategy to address high rates of incarceration at the source. Although some discord has developed since President Trump took office, criminal justice reform aimed at ending overincarceration remains a bipartisan issue as it has been for several years. The jail reform agenda focuses on the front end of the criminal justice system, usually intervening before trial and even before charging decisions are made. Most of the measures involve the disposition of minor crimes and rarely change the course of felony charge. Reducing jail population can be a way of addressing overincarceration without contending with the political and policy challenges that arise with the cases of violent criminals. Indeed, the jail reform agenda offers the opportunity of reducing the use of incarceration overall while increasing the effectiveness of police and other elements of law enforcement. 

Promoting safer communities

Curbing the misuse of jails is quintessentially a local initiative, undertaken by local governments for the benefit of their constituents. One obvious benefit comes by cutting taxpayer funds spent on the jails themselves. A much more important benefit comes when reducing jail populations produces safer communities. 

Two key strategies enhance public safety by reducing jail populations. The first is to prioritize law enforcement resources on serious crimes. The second is to promote more trusting relationships between police and the communities they patrol.

When a jail is loaded with individuals who need treatment for addiction or a mental illness, it is an indicator that the criminal justice system is being misused to address public health issues. When a jail is loaded with individuals who are charged with misdemeanors and who have no history of violence, it is an indicator of misused resources. Police are being diverted from real threats, and the substantial costs of jail detention are being expended on people who can await the disposition of their cases at home.

And, when jails are populated with individuals charged with low-level crimes, it can be a symptom of policing that erodes trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve, especially communities of color. As explored elsewhere in this report, excessive pre-trial jail detention can be a point of friction with two populations in particular, Latinos and immigrants. Latinos are subject to considerable disparities in their rates of jail incarceration compared to whites. Various factors contribute to this circumstance, including the large share of individuals with low incomes as well as implicit bias in the law enforcement system. But to the extent it contributes to a perception that the criminal justice system is unfair to Latinos, excessive jail incarceration detracts from the positive relations with police that enhance public safety. A number of public policy reforms designed to reduce jail populations also can reduce that kind of friction between Latino communities and their police. 

For noncitizens, being held even briefly for a minor offense can produce the life-changing consequences of deportation. Not only unauthorized immigrants are at risk. Lawful immigrants with many years of peaceful and prosperous residence here can face removal for an offense that a citizen could settle with a small fine. As such, the complex and increasingly controversial interconnections between the criminal justice system and immigration enforcement can readily taint interactions between police and communities with large immigrant populations. Often the result is a decreased willingness to report crimes and serve as witnesses, inevitably damaging the police’s ability to maintain public safety. Reform measures that aim to reduce jail populations can also reduce noncitizens’ exposure to deportation without raising issues related to federal policies.  

Shifting the focus to jails

As criminal justice reform has become a more prominent issue in recent years, jails have not received as much attention as other parts of the system. The police, for example, grab attention through their constant interactions with communities, especially when those interactions turn deadly. And, prisons are seen as the places where society exacts punishment, dangerous worlds unto themselves, controversial for the way they are run and for the long sentences that keep inmates there.  

Jails, however, are easy to overlook. 

Jails operate in an intermediary space between an arrest and a finding of guilt or innocence. They are supposed to be places to detain those awaiting trial who are deemed a danger to public safety or a flight risk. But as jail populations have tripled since the 1980s, they've increasingly become warehouses for the poor and people with substance abuse and mental health disorders. Even for people accused of minor crimes, this is where the criminal justice system begins to exact significant consequences. Fines and fees are imposed, bail is demanded as the price of freedom, people spend days, weeks, behind bars even though they have not been convicted of any crime. Though not as dramatic as a long prison stay or a police encounter that goes wrong, the misuse of jail can be exceptionally harmful.

The harm begins with individuals who can lose jobs or housing as a result of even a short jail stay. A criminal record, even for a minor offense, can haunt a lifetime. Taxpayers are harmed through high costs with little impact on actual crime. Law enforcement agencies are harmed when officers are diverted from high-priority missions to slog through the administrative work necessary to arrest and book someone accused of a minor offense. And, the harm broadens when jails serve as the gateway to prison incarceration. Even a short jail stay can increase the chances of a prison sentence and worse, increase the chances of repeat offenses. Finally, the very soul of the nation, it’s sense of justice, is harmed when the consequences fall disproportionately, and unfairly, on people of color. 

Towards a new agenda

A new policy agenda is now rapidly evolving as state and local governments address the many pathways that lead people to jail and the mechanisms which keep them there. The shared objective is to ensure that jails perform the limited mission for which they were originally intended: pretrial detention for those judged too risky to be at large. 

Challenge Network

Innovation across the country reducing jail populations

To reduce the flow of people brought to jail, local jurisdictions are creating alternatives to arrest for people suspected of a minor criminal offense, typically misdemeanors that do not involve violence or property of significant value. Police are increasingly given the option to handle minor offenses with citations instead of arrests. New programs are creating pathways to treatment —instead of to incarceration — for individuals with substance abuse problems or mental health issues. The assessment of fines and fees is being reexamined to ensure that the simple inability to pay does not escalate into a jail detention.  And, some jurisdictions are deciding that some offenses, ranging from marijuana possession to street vending, should not be considered crimes at all.

Another category of policy reforms is focused on policies that keep people in jail. Among the most consequential are those targeted on the bail process. The goal is to ensure that economic status is not the sole determinant of whether an individual is released or detained as is too often the case. In order to make better decisions on bail and various forms of pretrial supervision, a variety of jurisdictions are adopting risk assessment tools to generate evidence-based decisions on whether an individual should be held in detention or set free and whether there are services available which might ensure they remain a productive member of society.  

This report, which was supported by the MacArthur Foundation, focuses on two subgroups of the U.S. population which are particularly vulnerable to the misuse of jails: Latinos and immigrants. Due to their specific characteristics, both benefit considerably when minor infractions do not lead to arrest and criminal charges and when public health problems receive treatment rather than incarceration. Similarly, both populations for different reasons benefit when more just bail policies break the link between poverty and incarceration. And, like all members of a community, they benefit when jail reduction leads to greater public safety.