The nation’s jail population has nearly doubled in less than two decades, says a new report from the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute (JPI). Jails are housing more pretrial inmates for longer periods than ever before, the report says. Partly because of the rising costs of bail, people arrested today are much more likely to serve jail time before trial than they would have been twenty years ago, even though crime rates are nearly at their lowest levels in thirty years. In Mississippi, legislators are considering a bill to build regional jails in ten counties.
The report says that jails are filled with people with drug addictions, the homeless, and people charged with immigration offenses. It concludes that jails have become the “new asylums,” with six out of 10 people in jail living with a mental illness. In 2004, local governments spent $97 billion on criminal justice, including police, the courts and jails. More than $19 billion of county money went to financing jails alone. During the same time period, local governments spent $8.7 billion on libraries and only $28 billion on higher education. Research shows that places that increased their jail populations did not necessarily see a drop in violent crimes. Falling jail incarceration rates are associated with declining violent crime rates in some of the country’s largest counties and cities, like New York City. The report calls for improving pretrial release programs and reforming bail guidelines to leave more space in jails for people who may pose a greater threat to public safety.