December 27, 2019
Every year, about 11 million people funnel through local municipal and county jails. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, between 1970 and 2017, the number of people incarcerated in the nation’s 3,000-plus local jails ballooned - from 150,000 to about 720,000 per day.
Most people in jail have not been convicted of the charges they are facing, and many are being detained in civil matters, such as people incarcerated pretrial for immigration cases or those incarcerated due to unpaid child support or fines and costs.
The millions of people who go to jail each year are there generally for brief periods of time. Most released in days or hours after their arrest, while others are held for months or even years - often because they can’t afford to make bail, are unable to get a speedy trial or can’t gain timely access to a public defender. Only about a third of the 720,000 people in jails on a given day have been convicted and are serving short sentences, probation violations or minor misdemeanor convictions.
A recent Vera Institute report found that the rise of pretrial detention rates have been particularly drastic in rural counties, up 436% since 1970. That means for every 100,000 residents there are 200 people stuck in rural jails at some stage of criminal prosecution.
A report released this past summer by the Sentencing Project found that the number of women incarcerated in America’s jails and prisons increased by more than 700% from 26,378 in 1980 to 213,722 in 2016. Nearly half of those women are in local jails.
Prisons differ from jails in one fundamental way, jails are locally controlled - prisons are run by state governments and the federal government.
State prisons have actually cut their prison populations by directing state inmates to local jails. For example, in Pennsylvania, where, at one time, parole violators were returned to prison and stayed there until they were re-paroled, lawmakers amended the law to permit a state parole violator to be taken off the street and placed in a county jail and released automatically after six months. At the time, this was perceived as a “win-win,” the number of people in state prison declined and local jails were paid-for housing state inmates.
There are other important distinctions between jails and prison - resources and the duration of an offender’s incarceration.
State and federal prisons often provide meaningful treatment programs. The resources for staff and services to treat drug and alcohol addiction, mental health treatment and cognitive programming can help offenders transition to a crime-free lifestyle. Local jails typically don’t have the resources or the time to implement long term programming. People are in an out of local jails all the time and as a result comprehensive programming is often not an option.
While “tough on crime” attitudes have resulted in increasing numbers of people convicted of minor crimes, what can’t be overlooked are innovative tactics such as aggressive policing used to combat pockets of violent crime. The training has ultimately led to more police traffic stops, more pedestrians “stopped and frisked” and more people charged with minor offenses.
Local jails warehouse inmates. Prisons try to rehabilitate inmates. There is the disconnect - as jail population rises, prison population declines. In turn, help for inmates disappears and people who walk in and out of revolving jail doors are no different when they leave as they were when they entered.
Local jails impact the entire criminal justice system and millions of people each year. To control soaring jail population, jail policy should focus on people who are detained pretrial - legally innocent, until proven guilty. Law enforcement policy should zero-in on how the criminal justice system responds to low-level offenses; and local policymakers should rethink using local jails as revenue producers.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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