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New report: Jail populations exploding; massive growth devastating local communities

For Immediate Release: April 1, 2008
Contact: LaWanda Johnson, (202) 558-7974x308; cell:(202) 320-1029

New Report: Jail Populations Exploding; Massive Growth Devastating Local Communities

Jails bulging with people with mental illnesses, the homeless and people detained for immigration offenses; costing counties billions

Washington, D.C.—Communities are bearing the cost of a massive explosion in the jail population which has nearly doubled in less than two decades, according to a new report released today by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI). The research found that jails are now warehousing more people--who have not been found guilty of any crime--for longer periods of time than ever before. The research shows that in part due to the rising costs of bail, people arrested today are much more likely to serve jail time before trial than they would have been twenty years ago, even though crime rates are nearly at the lowest levels in thirty years.

“Crime rates are down, but you’re more likely to serve time in jail today than you would have been twenty years ago,” said report co-author Amanda Petteruti. “Jail bonds have skyrocketed, so that means if you’re poor, you do time. People are being punished before they’re found guilty—justice is undermined.”

The report, Jailing Communities: The Impact of Jail Expansion and Effective Public Safety Strategies, found jail population growth (22 percent), is having serious consequences for communities that are now paying tens of billions yearly to sustain jails. Jails are filled with people with drug addictions, the homeless and people charged with immigration offenses. The report concludes that jails have become the “new asylums,” with six out of 10 people in jail living with a mental illness.

The impact of increased jail imprisonment is not borne equally by all members of a community. New data reveal that Latinos are most likely to have to pay bail, have the highest bail amounts, are least likely to be able to pay and, by far, the least likely to be released prior to trial. African Americans are nearly five times as likely to be incarcerated in jails as whites and almost three times as likely as Latinos. Further exacerbating jail crowding problems is the increase in the number of people being held in jails for immigration violations—up 500 percent in the last decade.

In 2004, local governments spent a staggering $97 billion on criminal justice, including police, the courts and jails. Over $19 billion of county money went to financing jails alone. By way of comparison, during the same time period, local governments spent just $8.7 billion on libraries and only $28 billion on higher education.

“These counties just cannot afford to invest the bulk of their local public safety budget in jails, and we are beginning to see why--the more a community relies on jails, the less it has to invest in education, employment and proven public safety strategies,” says Nastassia Walsh, co-author of the report.

Research shows that places that increased their jail populations did not necessarily see a drop in violent crimes. Falling jail incarceration rates are associated with declining violent crime rates in some of the country’s largest counties and cities, like New York City.

“The investment in building more jail beds is not making communities safer,” says Derrick Johnson, NAACP National Board member. “Instead these investments serve only to unfairly target communities of color and waste taxpayer dollars.”

The report recommends that communities take action to reduce their jail populations and increase public safety by:

  • Improving release procedures for pretrial and sentenced populations. Implementing pretrial release programs that release people from jail before trial can help alleviate jail populations. Reforming bail guidelines would allow a greater number of people to post bail, leaving space open in jails for people who may pose a greater threat to public safety.
  • Developing and implementing alternatives to incarceration. Alternatives such as community-based corrections would permit people to be removed from the jail, allowing them to continue to work, stay with their families, and be part of the community, while under supervision. 
  • Re-examining policies that lock up individuals for nonviolent crimes. Reducing the number of people in jail for nonviolent offenses leaves resources and space available for people who may need to be detained for a public safety reason. 
  • Diverting people with mental health and drug treatment needs to the public health system and community-based treatment. People who suffer from mental health or substance abuse problems are better served by receiving treatment in their community. Treatment is more cost-effective than incarceration and promotes a positive public safety agenda. 
  • Diverting spending on jail construction to agencies that work on community supervision and make community supervision effective. Reallocating funding to probation services will allow people to be placed in appropriate treatment or other social services and is a less costly investment in public safety. 
  • Providing more funding for front-end services such as education, employment, and housing. Research has shown that education, employment, drug treatment, health care, and the availability of affordable housing coincide with lower crime rates.


Posted in Press Releases & Statements

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