Prison Policy Initiative Provides Updates on Excessive Jailing – Statistics Find Little Progress

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By Melinda Kukaj


EASTHAMPTON, MASS – Prison Policy Initiative this week provided updates on new data visualizations that spotlight states’ reliance on excessive jailing, charging mass incarceration harms communities as well as national welfare.


Prison Policy Initiative’s updated data from 2017 revealed how little U.S. overuse of jail has changed, noting that “one out of every three people behind bars is being held in a local jail.”


According to the Prison Policy Initiative, “in the years since that publication, many states have passed reforms aimed at reducing jail populations, but we still see the same trends playing out: too many people are confined in local jails, and the reasons for their confinement do not justify the overwhelming costs of our nation’s reliance on excessive jailing.”


Additionally, according to this update by Emily Widra, “people cycle through local jails more than seven million times each year and they are generally held there for brief, but life-altering, periods of time. Most are released in a few hours or days after their arrest, but others are held for months or years, often because they are too poor to make bail.


Widra also adds that fewer than one-third of less than 700,000 people held in jails on a given day have been convicted and are likely serving sentences shorter than a year.


For instance, according to Prison Policy Initiative, “more than 460,000 people are currently detained pretrial—in other words, they are legally innocent and awaiting trial. Many of these same people are jailed pretrial simply because they can’t afford money bail, while others remain in detention without a conviction because a state or federal government agency has placed a ‘hold’ on their release.”


The Prison Policy Initiative maintains pretrial detention disproportionately affects already marginalized groups of people, including low-income individuals, noting “the median felony bail amount is $10,000, but 32 percent of people booked into jail in the past 12 months reported an annual income below $10,000.”


PPI added that “data from Atlanta show that 1 in 8 city jail bookings in 2022 were of people who were experiencing homelessness.”


In addition, the Prison Policy Initiative said “43 percent of people detained pretrial are Black, 45 percent of people booked into jail in the past 12 months met criteria for any mental illness, 15 percent of people booked into jail in the past 12 months identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual.”


The issue of confinement not only creates issues short term but long term as well, noted Widra, adding that “people detained prior to trial are more likely to plead guilty, be convicted, be sentenced to jail, have longer sentences if incarcerated, and be arrested again.”


Prison Policy Initiative argued pretrial policies have a warehousing effect with jail populations exploding as a consequence of policies treating the criminal legal system as a default response to a variety of social problems that jails and policies are unable to effectively address. The reliance on pretrial detention, in particular, drives the bulk of jail growth over recent decades, said PPI.


According to the Prison Policy Initiative, renting jail space provides quite an incentive to continue the growth of jail.


Widra explains “there are two different ways to look at jail populations: by custody or jurisdiction. The custody population refers to the number of incarcerated people physically in local jails. The jurisdictional population focuses on the legal authority under which someone is incarcerated, regardless of the type of correctional facility they are in.”


The Prison Policy Initiative states that “this means that there are people in the physical custody of local jails, but who are under the jurisdictional authority of another agency, such as the federal government (including the U.S. Marshals Service, immigration authorities, and the Bureau of Prisons) or state agencies (namely the state prison system).”


According to Widra, “state and federal agencies pay local jails a per diem (per day) fee for each person held on their behalf. For example, in 2024, the state Department of Corrections (prison system) pays local jails in Louisiana $26.39 per person per day. These fees range and depend on the contract between agencies: In 2023, the per diem rate negotiated between Daviess County, Kentucky and the U.S. The Marshals Service increased from $55 to $70 per person per day.”


The Prison Policy Initiative reported “in 28 states and the District of Columbia, more than 10% of the jail population is being held on behalf of a state or federal authority. This both skews the data and gives local jail officials a powerful financial incentive to endorse policies that contribute to unnecessary jail expansion,” leaving jail officials little incentive to support reforms.


The Prison Policy Initiative stated that “another major consumer of local jail cells is the federal government, starting with the U.S. Marshals Service, which rents about 26,200 jail spaces each year—mostly to hold federal pretrial detainees in locations where there is no federal detention center. In the District of Columbia, South Dakota, New Hampshire, and New Mexico, more than 15 percent of the statewide jail population was actually held for the U.S. Marshals Service in 2019.”

Added Widra, “the practice of holding people in local jails for other authorities carries significant personal, social, and fiscal costs, often exposing detained people to the harms of incarceration for longer periods of time than they would be otherwise.”


Considering that, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, jails do not serve the purpose of holding individuals for significant periods of time because they lack programming that is sufficient, and don’t have services and medical care to house people for extended periods of time.


The Prison Policy Initiative states that “while not reflected in the 2019 data used in this briefing, we know that by June 2021, jail admissions were down 33 percent compared to the 12 months ending in June 2019. Before 2020, the number of annual jail admissions was consistently 10 million or more.”


The Prison Policy Initiative suggested “because these declines were not generally due to permanent policy changes, we expect that both prison and jail admissions will return to pre-pandemic levels as cases that were delayed for pandemic-related reasons work their way through the court system.”


However, author Widra offers recommendations such as, “change offenses and how offenses are treated, help people successfully navigate the criminal legal system to more positive outcomes, change policies that criminalize poverty or that create financial incentives for unnecessarily punitive policies, and address the troubling trend of renting jail space.”


About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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