Most of the controversy over crime and punishment in the United States has focused on how many people are in prison. You don't hear as much about jails, and yet for most Americans the local jail is where they're likely to experience the justice system.
Americans go to jail in a given year than to prison, although most of
them have not been convicted of any crime. Then there are those with
mental illnesses who simply don't have other options. And increasingly,
jail has become a de facto punishment for poverty, as the poor are
forced to remain there in lieu of bail while awaiting trial.
going on with the jail population doesn't get a lot of attention
relative to prison incarceration," said Jesse Jannetta, a researcher at
the Urban Institute.
Convicts are sent to prison to serve their
sentences, but people generally go to jail for short periods while
awaiting a hearing or a trial. Alongside the explosion of the population
in prison over the past two decades, the number of people spending time
in jail has also increased drastically, according to a study published by the Vera Institute of Justice this week.
any given day in 1983, about 96 people were in jails per 100,000 U.S.
residents, according to the report, which compiled data from the Justice
Department and other sources. That figure had more than doubled by
2007, to 259. It's decreased slightly since then to 231 in 2013.
By contrast, there were about 478 inmates in
state and federal prisons per 100,000 residents in 2013, but because
people spend much shorter periods in jail than they do in prison, the
jail system reaches far more people. The nation's jails recorded
some 11.7 million admissions in 2013, according to the report.
(Individuals who went to jail more than once that year likely account
for a large fraction of that total, but it's impossible to say exactly
how much.) That's an increase from 6 million admissions 30 years
While more and more Americans are going to jail, far
fewer of them are committing crimes, as the chart below shows, and
police are making fewer arrests. In view of the research
showing that the decline in crime is a result of other factors than the
increase in incarceration, you'd expect fewer crimes to result in fewer
people in custody.
course, jails do serve an important purpose with regard to public
safety. They are a place where potentially dangerous people can be held
while their cases are dealt with. Unfortunately, the report from the
Vera Institute suggests that the increase in jail bookings has a variety
of causes, none of which are closely related to keeping the public
As many public mental hospitals closed down
beginning four decades ago or so, law enforcement has wound up handling
those who would have once been their sickest patients -- the people who
don't seek out or remain in treatment, and who inevitably disrupt
public order so police are constantly called on to restrain them.
the same time, the average amount of time that any one person spends in
jail has increased from two weeks to more than three, according to the
report, suggesting that an overburdened system of courts may be taking
longer to process cases. And police are increasingly making the decision
to jail arrestees. It used to be that only 51 people were jailed for
every 100 arrested, but now, there are nearly as many bookings as
arrests. The causes of this increase are unclear.
Yet the most
alarming reason that more people are spending time in jail could be that
more judges are demanding bail from defendants awaiting trial.
every five defendants in felony cases who were released pending trial
in 1990, three were let go on their own recognizance or on some other
condition that did not involve bail. By 2009, the number had reversed,
as three out of five were required to post bail, according to the
report. As a result, a majority of those held before their trials in New
York City jails in 2013 were there simply because they couldn't come up
with $2,500 -- or less, in many cases.
The practice might be
defensible if these defendants were accused of white-collar fraud, in
which case a financial sanction could well discourage them from fleeing.
In fact, the courts' reliance on bail has the effect of jailing poor
defendants, even if they committed minor crimes and are unlikely to
attempt to flee justice, while allowing wealthier defendants to go
regardless of the risk they pose to public safety.
And since even a few days in jail can mean a loss of a job for a low-wage worker, jails can have the effect of forcing the poor further into poverty, without contributing to public safety.
jeopardizes your employment. It can interfere with your schooling. It
can affect your ability to obtain housing, and it has consequences for
your family and your community," said Laurie Garduque of the MacArthur
conjunction with the report's release, the MacArthur Foundation
announced $75 million in grants to encourage judges, district attorneys
and other local authorities to think differently about jails.
security does not predict whether a defendant will flee or offend again
before the trial begins, but other factors do, such
as defendants' employment statuses, criminal records and relationships
with neighbors and family.
In Kentucky, a single agency uses this
kind of information to quantitatively evaluate all defendants, and the
state is now releasing seven in ten defendants pending trial without
requiring bail from them. The report notes that only 8 percent of the
defendants Kentucky released under this program were arrested again,
compared to 16 percent of those nationally who were released on bail.
That discrepancy is a reminder that the ability to post
bail reveals more about how wealthy or poor defendants are than about
whether they endanger public safety.
John Pfaff, a law professor
at Fordham University, said that the equations that agencies such as the
one in Kentucky use to evaluate defendants are becoming more reliable,
as researchers and statisticians examine more data and refine their
techniques. "We actually have increasingly good models of who poses a
risk and who doesn't pose a risk," he said, adding that in jailing those
who are unlikely to flee or commit additional crimes, "We're spending
money that we don't have to spend. We're disrupting lives that we don't
have to disrupt."
The Urban Institute's Jannetta has written that
these models, if poorly designed, can wrongly give the impression
that defendants of color pose a greater risk than white defendants.
Blacks may be more likely to be arrested in general, regardless of
how many crimes they actually commit. It's a concern that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has also expressed.
Jannetta noted that the current system is probably more biased in any
case. "The risk assessment tools and the outcomes that they would derive
are probably better than subjective judgment, because ultimately that's
what you end up using -- or, in the case of bond, it's who can come up
with the money," he said.