Why Jails Are Booming

Why Jails Are Booming
A new report from the Prison Policy Initiative shows that the populations of local jails are swelling for reasons that have little to do with crime.
Jun 1 2017

It’s impossible to discuss reducing incarceration without acknowledging that the bulk of imprisonment happens in local jails. Federal penitentiary rates have dropped since peaking in 2009—though, under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, that may soon change. State prison rates have come down “modestly” overall, reports the Sentencing Project, and some states can boast double-digit decreases since the turn of the century.

City and county jails, meanwhile, have been bloating. Roughly two-thirds of states have seen jail populations at least double since 1983—a dozen have seen jail populations triple.

A new report from the Prison Policy Initiative examines the reasons behind this explosive growth. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s not driven by crime. Crime rates nationwide have dropped over the past few decades, as have conviction rates in court. So then why do jails keep swelling?

It basically comes down to two things, according to PPI: The number of people detained for pretrial purposes has been escalating, and federal and state authorities have been increasingly using local jails to house their inmates as well. These two sets of circumstances cover the bulk of people sitting in jail cells in the majority of states. Only a third of those jailed locally are there because they’ve actually been convicted of a crime, the report reads.

That local jail authorities have been farming out beds to wardens of the state and federal prison systems is particularly troubling, given that this system turns jailing into a side-hustle of sorts. Sheriffs and county jail directors can justify expanding these local detention centers, even if crime is dropping, by accounting for inmate traffic from state and federal partners. When looking at how Louisiana became the incarceration capital of the world, one would think it’s because crime is just out of control there. But that’s not the case. According to the report:

This phenomenon is most visible in Louisiana, where the state has largely outsourced the construction and operation of state prisons to individual parish sheriffs. Just over half (52 percent) of the state’s prison population is housed under contract with local jails; and as a result two-thirds (67 percent) of the people held in Louisiana jails are not “traditional jail inmates.” Unlike other states, Louisiana’s jail building boom appears to have been entirely fueled by the pursuit of contracts with the state’s prison system.

Sessions’s call to aggressively ramp up prosecutions of drug and immigration law violations will most certainly help drive that growth. The report notes that Immigration and Customs Enforcement rents out roughly 15,700 jail cells annually to detain people who may be facing deportation—again, people who’ve not yet been convicted of crimes, only suspected. The U.S. Marshals Service rents another 26,200 cells from local jails.



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