Prison Population Decreases, But Jail Population Grows: Study

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Photo by Stephanie Ezcurra via Flickr

While the prison population has decreased in the US, the pretrial jail population has grown, specifically in rural communities. Researchers point to drug abuse and economic incentives as two reason why jail populations have increased in a new study published by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Indeed, from 1970 to 2014, jail populations grew by almost sevenfold in small counties but only threefold in large counties, researchers said. For instance, in Texas, the number of defendants in jail went from 4,689 in 1992, to 7,575 in 2017– a 62 percent increase.

The authors noted economic incentives as one reason why more people are sitting in local jails.

Due to overcrowding in state and federal prisons, jails built additional beds to house other inmates for financial remuneration, which can range between $25 and $169 per person.

This “build it and they will come” phenomenon filled jail cells with a population that the county was financially responsible for, rather than sentenced felony offenders who would come with state money, said the authors.

The opioid crisis, which hit especially hard in rural communities like the Rust Belt and Appalachian states, also plays a large role in the increased  jail population. “A notable rise in drug seizures and arrests has occurred tangential to this increase in addiction and overdose death,” authors Marc Levin and Michael Haugen wrote.

Rural counties under 50,000 saw an increase in heroin arrest rates of 38 percent, compared to a 20 percent increase in larger counties over the same period. Arrests for other and synthetic drugs tell the same story: Rural counties experienced an increase of 48 percent, compared to almost 19 percent in urbanized counties.

And local jails became the institution responsible for housing opioid addicts and dealers.

Levin and Haugen urge policy makers to ensure that “defendants in low-level drug cases are quickly screened and connected to treatment through diversion or as a condition of pretrial release, rather than languishing in jail.”

“This can help ease pressure on already overtaxed counties and allow for more efficacious processing of court cases.”

Possible solutions for rising pretrial populations include reducing jailable offenses, expanding police diversion, use of validated risk-assessments at intake, and revising state bail laws, the study concluded.

A full copy of the report can be found here

This summary was prepared by Megan Hadley, a reporter at The Crime Report.

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