U.S. Jail Population Has Tripled Since the 1980s, Fueling Inequality


A new report by the Prison Policy Initiative finds that jail growth fuels cycles of marginalization, poverty, and incarceration, especially in communities of color.

Eleven million people go to jail each year, according to the report. Two-thirds of the 720,000 people in American jails on a given day have not been convicted and are legally innocent; the rest are serving sentences usually less than a year long, most often for misdemeanors. Studies have found that 65 percent of jail inmates meet standards for a diagnosable substance abuse disorder and 15 percent were recently homeless (compared to 2 percent of the general population). More than 7 percent of people in jail identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, compared to 3.5 percent of the general population. People of color are 28 percent of the general population but comprise 52 percent of the jail population. Black people are jailed at four times the rate of white people.

Author Joshua Aiken writes that two factors are driving jail growth: a massive increase in the number of people held pre-trial, and an increasing number of jails that rent cells to state and federal authorities.

Fully 99 percent of jail growth in the last 15 years has been in the pre-trial population, and Aiken traces that surge to increased arrests and an increased reliance on money bail. Historically, people would be jailed before trial only if they posed a safety threat or risk of flight. But from 1990 to 2009, the average bail amount more than doubled, from approximately $25,000 to $55,000. At the same time, changes in policy strategy have resulted in more arrests. For example, among juveniles that encountered the police in 1979, the police referred only 3.8 percent to criminal court; 36.6 percent were handled within police departments and released. By 2011 (the most recent year data is available) the percentage of juveniles referred to criminal court nearly doubled, to 7.3 percent, and the percentage released dropped to 22 percent.

“As a result,” the report concludes, “today, local jails are filled with people who are legally innocent, marginalized, and overwhelmingly poor.”

Researchers have found that the consequences of being detained even for short periods of time pre-trial can be devastating. Being detained for just three days can adversely impact employment, finances, housing, and the well-being of dependent children. Because people detained pre-trial are more likely to plead guilty, to be convicted, to be sentenced to prison, and to receive longer sentences if incarcerated, pre-trial detention drives mass incarceration, especially for people of color.

The report also identifies the renting of jail cells as a driver of jail growth and an obstacle to criminal justice reform. In more than half the country, at least 10 percent of the jail population are being held under contract for federal or state agencies. The U.S. Marshals Service rents about 26,200 cells each year, mostly for federal pre-trial detainees where there is no federal detention facility, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement rents about 15,700 cells annually for people facing deportation.

Large portions of the jail population in Mississippi and Tennessee are held for state authorities, and in Louisiana, 67 percent of the people in jail are not traditional jail inmates. In the early 1990s, in response to a federal court order to reduce prison overcrowding, Louisiana encouraged local sheriffs to build local jails in return for future profits. The state’s incarceration rate skyrocketed, and today, 52 percent of Louisiana’s prison population is housed under contract with local jails.

The jail growth drives cycles of marginalization, poverty, and incarceration, especially in communities of color.