The U.S. jail incarceration rate has dropped by 12 percent over the past decade, paralleling the decline in federal and state prison numbers, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).
But racial disparities, overcrowding, and the continued use of detention facilities to imprison individuals awaiting trial but who cannot afford money bail adds a grim underside to the decline, the BJS statistics show.
In 2017, almost two-thirds of jail inmates—462,000 people—had not been convicted of any crime and were awaiting a court appearance. With about 10.6 million jail “admissions” in 2017—a 19 percent drop since 2007—detainees remained an average 26 days behind bars.
The BJS figures, obtained from annual surveys completed by a weighted sample of city and county jail administrators, showed that the jail incarceration rate at the middle of 2017 was 229 per 100,000 U.S.residents, a decline from the rate of 259 per 100,000 calculated in the middle of 2007.
The survey showed the percentage of the jail population that was African-American slipped from 39 percent to 34 percent over the decade, while whites increased from 44 percent to 50 percent. Still, in 2017, the jail incarceration rate for blacks was more than three times the rate for whites and Hispanics, BJS found.
Moreover, one in five jails were operating at or above 100 percent of their rated capacity, based on the number of beds or inmates.
On a more encouraging note, the BJS found that the number of juveniles confined to jail cells was slashed nearly in half over the decade from 6,800 in 2007 to 3,600 in 2017.
The figures, while not broken down geographically, support a consensus of criminologists that the accelerated opioid crisis over the past decade has hit particularly hard in the U.S. heartland, driving an influx of whites into jails in rural areas and small communities where there are few non-correctional alternatives for treatment of addiction.
The BJS jail report was released in tandem with figures for incarceration rates in state and federal prisons that showed similar declines in the decade between 2007 and 2017. According to the BJS, the incarceration rate for prisoners under state and federal jurisdictions who received sentences of one year or longer dropped by 13 per cent.
A one-year drop of 2.1 percent in the prison incarceration rate between 2016 and 2017 brought it to “the lowest level since 1997,” BJS said.
A report by the Vera Institute of Justice released earlier this week, covering incarcerated populations through 2018, showed a similar overall decrease—driven mostly by reductions in states like New York, California, and Missouri.
But at least 19 states actually increased incarceration rates during 2018, according to Vera.
The muddy picture underlined the fact that despite bipartisan support for reducing mass incarceration, the decline in prison populations so far has been “anemic,” says criminologist Malcolm Young, director of Project New Opportunity, a nonprofit aimed at helping the formerly incarcerated achieve successful reentry.
“It will remain so,” Young added, in a comment provided to The Crime Report, “unless and until leaders stop frittering around the edges of a complex, self-perpetuating, industry-driven and racially fraught system and get to the heart of the problem.”
According to Young, that not only meant changing the U.S. approach to punishment, but improving the conditions in many “distressed communities” that drive criminal behavior.
A serious decarceration agenda should include, for example, improving schools, “richer community resources, living wage employment, safe and pleasant public spaces, access to drug treatment, affordable housing and medical and mental health services,” Young wrote.
He conceded that support for many of these issues is divided along partisan lines.
“Yet until they are addressed, ‘bi-partisan’ criminal justice reforms will continue to do little to end mass incarceration,” he said.