State capitols share responsibility for growing jail populations, charges a new report by the Prison Policy Initiative. “Jails are ostensibly locally controlled, but the people held there are generally accused of violating state law, and all too often, state policymakers ignore jails,” argues the new report, Era of Mass Expansion: Why State Officials Should Fight Jail Growth.
The fact that jails are smaller than state prison systems and under local control has allowed state officials to avoid addressing the problems arising from jail policies and practices. “Reducing the number of people jailed has obvious benefits for individuals, but also helps states curb prison growth down the line,” says Joshua Aiken, report author and Policy Fellow at the Prison Policy Initiative.
Every year, 11 million people churn through local jail systems, mostly for minor violations of state law. Of the 720,000 people in jails on a given day, most have not been convicted of a crime and have either just been arrested or are too poor to make bail. And since the 1980s, crime has fallen but the number of people jailed has more than tripled.
The new report finds that the key driver of jail growth is not what one might expect – courtroom judges finding more people guilty and sentencing them to jail. In fact, the number of people serving jail sentences has actually fallen over the last 20 years. Instead, the report finds two troubling explanations for jail growth:
Recognizing the importance of state-specific data for policymakers and advocates, the report offers more than a hundred graphs that make possible state comparisons of jail trends. The report uncovers unique state problems that drive mass incarceration:
Era of Mass Expansion draws particular attention to the states where the dubious practice of renting jail space to other authorities contributes most to jail growth. “Local sheriffs, especially in states like Louisiana and Kentucky, end up running a side business of incarcerating people for the state prison system or immigration authorities,” explains Aiken. “Renting out jail space often creates a financial incentive to expand jail facilities and keep more people behind bars.” The report finds that renting jail space for profit has contributed more to national jail growth since the 1980s than people who are being held by local authorities and who have actually been convicted of crimes.
For state policymakers, the report offers 10 specific recommendations to change how offenses are classified and treated by law enforcement, eliminate policies that criminalize poverty or create financial incentives for unnecessarily punitive practices, and monitor the upstream effects of local discretion. “There are plenty of things local officials can do to lower the jail population,” says Aiken. “With this report, I wanted to bring in state-level actors by showing how much of the solution is in their hands.”