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 States.
We now have that analytical tool. The Incarceration Trends Project 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 history.
Jeremy Travis is the president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.