Local jail costs increased despite falling crime and fewer people being admitted to jail, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts report. Historically, the roughly 3,000 local jails operating in the United States have received less public and policymaker attention than prisons. But now, the COVID-19 pandemic has put jails—secure correctional facilities, generally operated by county or municipal governments, where people are detained before trial or confined post-conviction for periods usually lasting less than a year—under additional scrutiny. Jails rely on close confinement and so are high risk for disease transmission. Local governments are also confronting the budget implications of the pandemic and looking for potential savings, especially in costly areas such as corrections.
This environment provides an opportunity to examine correctional expenditures and consider strategies that may offer enduring public safety and fiscal benefits. The available data indicates that to mitigate COVID-19 exposure risk, jurisdictions reduced jail populations by about 31% nationwide from March to May 2020, and although those populations partially rebounded, they were still 15% below March levels as of October 2020. Further, people released from jail in March were readmitted less often over the ensuing six months than those released in January, suggesting that the pandemic-related decreases in jail populations did not affect public safety. These reductions may not yield immediate savings, but a sustained commitment to safely cutting the number of people in jail could provide long-term financial benefits. The recent experience of reducing prison populations offers a glimpse of the potential cost savings: The 9% drop in the prison population from 2008 to 2018 virtually flattened corrections spending, which had averaged 5.4% annual growth from 1991 to 2007.
To support state and local efforts to reduce jail spending and protect public safety, The Pew Charitable Trusts undertook an analysis of jail costs, using expenditure data for all U.S. localities, primarily from 2007 and 2017, and related criminal justice data. (See methodology for details on definitions and analyses.) Key findings include:
Local governments spend billions on jails. As of the end of 2017:
- Jail and other local corrections costs had risen sixfold since 1977, with jail costs reaching $25 billion.
- Almost 2 in 5 dollars spent on state and local correctional institutions went to jails.
- About 1 in 17 county dollars was spent on jails.
- The average annual cost of holding a person in jail was about $34,000.
- Roughly a third of jail facility capacity was more than 30 years old, and about 20% of jails were overcrowded, which could present significant capital challenges to local budgets.
Jail costs rose even as crime and admissions to jail fell. As of the end of 2017:
- A 20% decrease in crime and a 19% drop in jail admissions since 2007 had not led to reduced jail spending.
- The portion of local budgets spent on jails did not correlate with state crime rates.
- Small localities spent more per capita on jails than most other jurisdictions, despite having lower crime rates.
Nationwide, counties and cities are seeking to address budgetary pressures during these difficult fiscal times and for the long term. New policies and practices—including many they already have embraced in response to the pandemic—can safely reduce jail populations and associated costs and help them achieve those goals.
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