Reducing Jail Populations

Detaining defendants while they await trial can have huge consequences in people’s lives and is a major driver of jail overcrowding. Using data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Prison Policy Initiative produced the table below, which shows that, in 2013, 40 to 60 percent of the jail population in most states had not been convicted of any crime, with some states reaching over 80 percent of inmates. The report examines federal data from 1983 to 2013 to conduct a state-by-state comparison and found increases in pretrial detention to be the main driver of jail growth in the United States. 


Percent of people in jail who are pre-trial/unconvicted

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Figure 4. In the eight states where convicted people make up the majority of the jail population, that status is less likely to be the result of particularly enlightened bail policies, and more likely to be the result of the jails in that state renting large numbers of cells to the state prison system. As discussed below, the practice of renting large numbers of cells to other agencies distorts both the data and, more often than not, policy outcomes.
Reducing Jail Populations

Cities and states across the country have taken important steps to decrease jail populations by reducing pretrial detention. Releasing low-risk individuals dramatically reduces the collateral consequences of an arrest and increases the likelihood of a fair trial. Meanwhile, it frees valuable government resources. 

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Pretrial Services
Robust pretrial service departments use evidence-based tools to guide release decisions and allow defendants to await trial in the community.
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Bail Reform
Jurisdictions across the country are moving away from cash bail.