New Data Tool from VERA Institute on Jails

Today’s post is a report from VERA Institute on Jails. As we know, in Hawai`i our jails have become the de facto mental health facilities, for which they are ill-equipped to handle. VERA Institute has created a data tool that shows that the US jail population has risen four-fold from 1970-2014.

As a community, we can do better…in fact, WE MUST!

In Our Own Backyard: Confronting Growth and Disparities in American Jails
Ram Subramanian, Christian Henrichson, Jacob Kang-Brown

“Although jails are the “front door” to mass incarceration, there is not enough data for justice system stakeholders and others to understand how their jail is being used and how it compares with others.

“To address this issue, Vera researchers developed a data tool that includes the jail population and jail incarceration rate for every U.S. county that uses a local jail. Researchers merged jail data from two federal data collections—the Bureau of Justice Statistics Annual Survey of Jails and Census of Jails—and incorporated demographic data from the U.S. Census.

“The data revealed that, since 1970, the number of people held in jail has increased from 157,000 to 690,000 in 2014—a more than four-fold increase nationwide, with growth rates highest in the smallest counties. This data also reveals wide variation in incarceration rates and racial disparities among jurisdictions of similar size and thus underlines an essential point: The number of people in jail is largely the result of choices made by policymakers and others in the justice system. The Incarceration Trends toolprovides any jurisdiction with the appetite for change the opportunity to better understand its history of jail use and measure its progress toward decarceration.

Excerpt from Report and Project Summary:

“Jails are the way stations through which nearly all people who are arrested pass briefly or remain until their cases are resolved, often because they are too poor to post bail or fail to comply with the conditions of their pretrial Release. Since 1970, the number of people held in jail has escalated, from 157,000 people to 690,000 in 2014—a more than four-fold increase. This growth in jail populations has spurred the costly construction of new— or the expansion of existing—jails. Indeed, there was a notable rise in thenumber of counties with “super jails”—very large jail systems of more than 1,000 beds—from only 21 in 1970 to 145 by 2014.

“The largest jails—Rikers Island (New York City), Los Angeles County Jail, Miami-Dade County (Florida) Jail, or Cook County (Chicago) Jail—often draw the most attention and are the ones most often discussed by policymakers and in the media. But these jails have not grown the most, nor are they located in the jurisdictions with the highest incarceration rates. Rather, mid-sized and small counties—which account for the vast majority of jails administered by the country’s approximately 3,000 counties—have largely driven growth, with local jail populations increasing since 1970 by 4.1 times in mid-sized counties and 6.9 times in small counties. In contrast, the jail populations in large counties grew by an average of 2.8 times.

“As with prison incarceration, the growth of jails has not affected everyone equally. Jail incarceration rates among African Americans and certain other minority groups are steeply higher than those of whites; and female jail incarceration rates have grown far faster than jail incarceration rates for men. Despite the fact that African Americans comprised 13 percent of the general population in 2014, they made up 35 percent of the jail population. Compared to a four-fold increase for men, the number of women in jail has increased 14-fold—from fewer than 8,000 in 1970 to nearly 110,000 in 2014. Policymakers and the public can use Vera’sIncarceration Trends tool to take a look at incarceration trends in their own local jurisdictions and identify similarly-situated counties elsewhere that have managed to reduce their jail populations and might serve as resources while weighing options on how to deal with jail growth.

“Any local reform effort will beg the question: What size should any given county or municipality’s jail be? Following four decades of growth, it is easy to forget that jails were not always the size they are today. There is no mathematical formula that can offer a precise answer to this question for every one of the country’s almost 3,000 jail jurisdictions. However, the wide variation among similar counties demonstrated in Vera’s analysis show that the number of people behind bars—and their demographic disparities—is largely the result of policy and practice choices.”

Download Full Report

Download Summary

Download Data and Methodology


Justice must always question itself, just as society can exist only by means of the work it does on itself and on its institutions. – Michel Foucault (1926-84), French philosopher



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