It has been well documented, for many years, that there are major problems with the prison system in the United States. But, what has largely been missed in that discussion is another segment of America’s burgeoning prison industrial complex: local and county jails.
The Vera Institute of Justice has released a new report on jails in the United States, called “Incarceration’s Front Door: The Misuse of Jails In America.” The information this report contains is nothing less than startling. Coming on the heels of a lawsuit filed against Ferguson, Missouri, that claims the city uses jail as a “debtors’ prison” for the poor, the report reveals how the use of county and municipal jails has changed in recent years.
According to the report, on any given day, there are close to 750,000 people who are in jail in America. Even though both violent and property crime rates have fallen dramatically over the years, the number of people placed in jail has skyrocketed. Between 1983 and 2013, annual admissions to jail nearly doubled, from six million to 11.7 million. The report says that the people who are being placed in jail now are also spending more time there; 23 days on average, compared to 14 days thirty years ago.
Jails are supposed to be holding centers for those awaiting trial who are considered too dangerous to release into the community, or who are considered to be flight risks. But the Vera Institute report says that now, nearly two thirds of inmates in jail have never been convicted of any previous crime. They are simply too poor to be able to afford to post bail. Almost 75 percent of jailed inmates are being held for nonviolent offenses, such as traffic violations or drug crimes. Those in jail are disproportionately people of color, as well. Like their big brothers, prisons, jails hold far more black and Latino inmates than white inmates.
The seriously mentally ill often wind up in jail. The Vera Institute report says that those in jail suffer from mental illness at a rate four to six times that of the general population. Seventy two percent of those in jail who are mentally ill, also have a substance abuse problem.
For some, jail is a revolving door.
The report says that some people wind up in jail over and over again, for minor offenses. In New York City, between 2008 and 2013, there were 473 people who were admitted to jail at least 18 times. Among those people:
- 85 percent were charged with a misdemeanor or violation
- 21 percent had a serious mental illness
- 99.4 percent had a problem with substance abuse
Those 473 people accounted for over 10,000 jail admissions, and over 300,000 days in jail.
America’s “war on drugs” is a major reason people wind up in jail. In 1983, drug defendants accounted for nine percent of the jail population. By the end of the Reagan administration, when the “war on drugs” really took off, those jailed for drug crimes had reached 23 percent. It has remained around that level ever since.
Governments spend a small fortune on jailing citizens.
From 1982 to 2011, local expenditures on building and operating jails increased by almost 235 percent, according to the Vera Institute. Jails account for about one third of the total expenditures on corrections, which is staggering when you consider the statistic that two thirds of those in jail awaiting trial have never been convicted of a crime.
Because local and county budgets are often strapped for money, the cost of running jails many times comes from other municipal services, such as schools, and transportation. So the entire community is often negatively impacted by the cost of keeping people in jail.
The economic impact on those who are jailed is significant, too. The Vera Institute says that incarceration has a negative impact on wages. On average, males who are jailed are estimated to work nine weeks less per year, and earn over $15,000 less per year than their non-incarcerated counterparts.
Key to understanding why jails have been filling up in recent years, is the “broken windows” theory of policing. This method of policing targets low level infractions through a “zero tolerance” policy, and the result is that many people who would not have been charged with a crime are now being dragged through the justice system. Look at what happened recently in New York City, when police staged a “work slow down” in protest of mayor Bill De Blasio. They stopped arresting people for minor offenses, and the result was that the crime rate dropped noticeably.
The misuse of jail has been largely ignored, as discussions have focused mainly on the American prison system. The Vera Institute report concludes:
The misuse of jails is neither inevitable nor irreversible. But to chart a different course will take leadership and vision. No single decision or decision maker in a local justice system determines who fills the local jail.
In other words, it will take enlightened local politicians, who realize that there are solutions to problems with minor crime that don’t involve jail. It will take investing resources in things like substance abuse, and community mental health programs, rather than in police and corrections. And, to a great extent, it will take an end to the discredited “broken windows” policing theory, and a scaling back, if not an end to, the “war on drugs.”
Image via Wikimedia Commons