by Joshua Aiken
In our most recent report, Era of Mass Expansion, we argued that state lawmakers need to pay attention to local jails: the U.S. jail population has tripled over the last three decades almost entirely because local justice systems have increasingly detained people who are legally innocent but too poor to make bail. But there’s another reason jails need to be at the top of state lawmakers’ agendas—jails affect state prison outcomes.
While untangling the data we found that, since 1978, jail populations have grown in tandem with state prison populations in every state. In fact, 75% of Americans live in a state where both the state prison and local jail incarceration rates doubled.
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Mass incarceration is not really a question of prison or jail growth, but both.
Mass incarceration is not really a question of prison or jail growth, but both: more people behind bars for low-level crimes means that, soon enough, entire justice systems are bursting at the seams. While crime rates have fallen drastically over these 35 years, “tough-on-crime” attitudes have continued to shape local and state decision-makers’ approach to dealing with social concerns.
As more Americans have acquired criminal and arrest records, and as jails have increasingly become filled with people who are marginalized and poor, the entire criminal justice system has been transformed. Spending time in jail not only leads to a number of collateral consequences, but also other financial roadblocks to successful reentry, and higher recidivism rates.
Putting more people in jail for minor crimes will soon mean a state prison system bursting at the seams.
There is no question that state prisons are the largest slice of the whole pie. But as James Kilgore has usefully explained, jails are the “local face of mass incarceration.” Unless state lawmakers begin addressing the practices of local officials and how low-level offenses are treated, negative outcomes will continue and state incarceration rates will remain sky high.
Governors and legislators need to recognize that the vast majority of people who are released from state prisons and are arrested for another crime get arrested in the same state—they often end up back in the prisons or jails of that state. So while jails function at the city and county level, high rates of incarceration in one local jurisdiction can shape state-level trends. Mass incarceration is a systematic phenomenon, operating at all levels of government, but state lawmakers are particularly responsible for how many of their constituents end up behind bars.