[Pnews] Who is Putting the Most People in Jail? Not New York, Chicago, or LA.

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Dec 16 11:13:17 EST 2015


  Who is Putting the Most People in Jail? Not New York, Chicago, or LA.

        A new tool drills down on hidden incarceration rates.

By Jeremy Travis

By now, the metrics of mass incarceration are well known. As documented 
in last year’s report of the National Research Council, incarceration 
rates in the U.S. more than quadrupled between the early 1970s and 2009, 
the peak year in the prison build-up. Over that time span, the 
tough-on-crime era produced the promised results — each year, more 
people were held behind bars. Today, the U.S. incarceration rate is five 
to 10 times higher than the rates of European countries. As the NRC 
report concluded, this phenomenon is “historically unprecedented and 
internationally unique.”

Less well known, however, are the metrics of a distinct phenomenon — 
changing incarceration rates in American jails. This reflects, in part, 
a legalistic distinction between these two institutions. Prisons 
typically hold people convicted of serious crimes and sentenced to 
prison terms longer than a year. Jails, by contrast, typically hold two 
populations, people awaiting trial and those serving custodial sentences 
of less than a year. While the NRC consensus panel, which I chaired, 
referenced this legal distinction, its analysis focused primarily on 
incarceration rates in prisons. This focus allowed the panel to explore 
the role of increasingly punitive sentencing policies as drivers in the 
prison build-up.

Now, after decades of inattention, fundamental questions are being asked 
regarding the role of jails as providers of mental health services, the 
use of cash bail to secure pretrial release, the potential for pretrial 
diversion, and the need for better risk-assessment instruments to aid in 
decision-making, among other things.

Yet this new front in criminal justice reform has lacked the essential 
metric that provides an empirical yardstick for the prison-reform 
movement. We simply did not know the incarceration rates for jails. Of 
course we know the number of people in jail. Every jail administrator 
knows the daily count of the individuals in his or her custody. But we 
did not think of jail incarceration as a matter of /rate/ — the number 
of people in custody divided by the population of the county (or city) 
that administers the jail. Whereas we can say that the prison 
incarceration rate of Pennsylvania, for example, has increased nearly 30 
percent over the past 15 years, while the rate in New York has dropped 
by more than 28 percent, we have been unable to make similar statements 
about the incarceration rates of the 3,000 counties across the United 

We now have that analytical tool. The Incarceration Trends Project 
<http://trends.vera.org/> research team at the Vera Institute of Justice 
has created a database that will allow anyone to examine the jail 
incarceration rate in their county, compare it to others, analyze trends 
over time, and assess the impact of its reform efforts. The findings, 
which also appear in an accompanying report, underscore the importance 
of today’s focus on jails. As with prisons, the jail population has 
increased significantly — more than four-fold — between 1978 and 2014. 
As with prisons, today’s jail incarceration rates are without historical 
precedent. The nationwide jail incarceration rate today is 326 per 
100,000 county residents (aged 15-64). Yet in the 1970s, only rarely did 
the rate in the highest counties exceed 300 per 100,000. We have never 
been here before.

What’s most revealing is the examination of trends within the jail 
population. Even though the jails in the largest counties get most 
public attention — think of Rikers Island in New York City, the Los 
Angeles County Jail in Los Angeles, the Cook County Jail in Chicago — 
these jails have not grown the most, nor do they have the highest 
incarceration rates. On the contrary: jail incarceration rates have been 
growing faster in mid- to small-size counties. Looking at counties with 
more than 250,000 county residents, those with the highest jail 
incarceration rates today are Clayton County, GA (962 per 100,000), 
Shelby County, TN (876 per 100,000), and New Orleans, LA (861 per 100,000).

A stunning fact jumps off the page. The Vera report finds that 130 small 
counties — those with fewer than 250,000 county residents — have jail 
incarceration rates that /exceed/ 1,000 per 100,000. Because we formerly 
had no metric to rank jails by incarceration rate, many of these 
counties escaped the particular scrutiny that would come with the 
distinction of incarcerating such a high percentage of their residents.

The Vera Institute report also provides data that underscore the 
disparate impact of the justice system. For example, the study concludes 
that, although African-Americans comprise 13 percent of the U.S. 
population, they make up nearly 40 percent of the jail population. Of 
particular concern is this finding: the African-American incarceration 
rate is highest in the mid- and small-sized counties, the same 
jurisdictions that have seen the steepest growth in jail incarceration 
rates overall. And here is a stunning finding: the female jail 
incarceration rate has increased nearly 9 times, from 12 per 100,000 in 
1970 to 106 per 100,000 in 2014; once again, the rates for women are 
highest in small counties.

This report provides an essential national yardstick. Now, counties can 
engage in cross-jurisdictional comparisons using a common denominator, 
their county population. As counties grow and contract, as the racial 
and ethnic composition of counties change, as criminal justice reform 
efforts are undertaken, policy makers will be able to speak a common 
language. To this metric can be added important data about the cost of 
detention, the length of pretrial detention, and the average number of 
days in pretrial custody for different criminal charges. In addition to 
county executives and corrections officials, this database will prove 
useful for prosecutors, judges, probation officials and service 
providers interested in supporting a more humane and effective pretrial 
justice system.

A more ambitious hope is that this tool and report will add urgency to a 
much-needed, deeper national conversation about the centrality of 
incarceration in our response to crime. The deprivation of liberty takes 
many forms — jails, prisons, state and federal facilities, adult and 
juvenile, immigration detention centers and overnight custody in police 
station houses. The NRC report suggests that we measure the state’s 
decision to hold its citizens in custody against four high standards: is 
it proportionate to the wrong committed; parsimonious in application; 
respecting the human dignity of the citizen incarcerated; and reflecting 
the principle of social justice. If we keep these principles in mind, 
certainly we would significantly reduce the number of our fellow 
citizens held in county jails. That is the promise of this moment in our 

/Jeremy Travis is the president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 
City University of New York./

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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