How many people in your state go to local jails every year?
New data shows that local jails impact more people in your state than you may think.
by Wanda Bertram and Alexi Jones, September 18, 2019
County and city jails have been called “mass incarceration’s front door,” but campaigns to reform or close jails often don’t receive the attention they deserve. Why? Because the traditional way we measure the impact of jails – the average daily population – significantly understates the number of people directly affected by these local facilities.
Because people typically stay in jail for only a few days, weeks or months, the daily population represents a small fraction of the people who are admitted over the course of a year. But the statistic that better reflects a jail’s impact on a community – the number of people who go to jail – is rarely accessible to the public.
Thankfully, we can now get close to closing this gap in the data and making the impact of jails clearer. Building on our new national report Arrest, Release, Repeat, we’re able to estimate the number of people in every state who go to local jails each year.
To produce these estimates, we analyzed results of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an annual survey that primarily concerns health trends but also contains useful data about individuals who have been arrested. The table below shows the results of our state-by-state analysis. For a rich demographic breakdown of people who go to jail (including how many go to jail multiple times a year), see our national report.
|State||Number of unique annual jail admissions||State population||Unique jail admissions per 100,000 state residents||Average statewide daily jail population|
|District of Columbia||12,000||689,154||1,741||1,969|
Understanding the true number of people directly affected by local jails allows policymakers to better assess the impact of jail policies. But more importantly, these statistics ought to prompt state and local policymakers to question whether it is necessary to jail so many people in the first place.
As we found in Arrest, Release, Repeat, people who go to county and city jails are disproportionately likely to have a substance use disorder, suffer from a serious mental illness, and lack health insurance. They’re also significantly more likely to be unemployed, have incomes under $10,000, and lack a high school diploma. States and counties should not be using incarceration to address these serious problems of public health and economic inequality.
Moreover, most jail bookings do not improve public safety. Research from the Vera Institute shows that only 5% of arrests every year are for violent offenses, and our analysis in Arrest, Release, Repeat indicates that even the vast majority (88%) of people arrested multiple times per year don’t pose a serious public safety risk.
Needlessly jailing vulnerable people isn’t only a waste of public money: Even short stints in jail can throw an individual’s life into disarray by forcing them to miss work, isolating them from loved ones, and cutting off any medications they are taking. Considering the enormous human costs of excessive incarceration, policymakers should use this new data to assess whether their jails are being used to protect the public or as a temporary – and ineffective – remedy for social problems.
I did a nine year study of jail admissions for my county jail in Iowa and about 80% of those admitted did not return. Some of those that did return did so many times and were known as “frequent flyers”. There we a few that had been in and out jail for more than 20 years.
If deterrence works it is at the time of the first admission to jail. Prisons are homes for the undeterred.