‘Arrest, Release, Repeat’: The Tragic Cycle of American Jails

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Photo by Neil Conway via Flickr.

The racial and economic imbalance in America’s prison population is repeated in the massive numbers of people who cycle in and out of the nation’s jails, says the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI).

In a sweeping report, the PPI found that people jailed multiple times are “disproportionately black, low-income, less educated and unemployed” with the “vast majority” locked up for non-violent offenses.

According to the report, entitled “Arrest, Release, Repeat,” at least a quarter of the 4.9 million people arrested and booked in jail each year are repeat offenders, and at least 428,000 people will go to jail three or more times over the course of a 12-month period.

The report also found that 49 percent of people with multiple arrests in the past year had annual incomes below $10,000, compared to 36 percent of people arrested only once and 21 percent of people with no arrests.


Table courtesy of Prison Policy Initiative


Black men and women, who make up only 13 percent of the general population, account for 21 percent of those arrested one time and 28 percent of those arrested multiple times, the report found.

Moreover, “people with multiple arrests are much more likely than the general public to suffer from substance use disorders and other illnesses, and much less likely to have access to health care.” the report concluded.

The figures, based on data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, showed that the “vast majority of people” who cycle in and out of jail each year are booked for nonviolent offenses such as drug possession, theft or trespassing.

According to PPI, the data fills gaps left by other federal statistics that cover only one-time “snapshots” of the jail population, and fail to show the high turnover rates over the course of a year.

“Police and jails are supposed to promote public safety,” wrote the authors of the report, Alexi Jones and Wendy Sawyer, in an accompanying press release.

“Increasingly, however, law enforcement is called upon to respond punitively to medical and economic problems unrelated to public safety issues.”

Among the other findings of the study:

  • Some 52 percent of people arrested multiple times reported a substance abuse disorder;
  • Individuals with multiple arrests were three times more likely to have a series mental illness, and were less likely to have access to health care;
  • The prevalence of HIV was 11 times higher among people with multiple arrests, a problem aggravated bty the fact that “many jails fail to provide HIV care,” the report said.

The report offers recommendations for counties on how to stop the continuously jailing vulnerable residents and how to address core issues that make arrests more likely.

The recommendations includes:

  • Channeling more public resources to expanding and invest in community-based mental health care and substance abuse treatment;
  • Reducing the number of arrests and jailable offenses;
  • Employing pre-arrest diversion programs to help people avoid jail.

The report said more jurisdictions should develop interventions that target the so-called “frequent utilizers” of the criminal justice system, and pointed to programs successfully underway in cities like New York City and Denver.

Those programs demonstrate “that it is possible to stop people from cycling in and out of jail by providing appropriate medical care and social services in the community,” the authors said.

Services such as supportive housing,mental health and substance abuse treatment “which address the underlying problems that can lead to justice involvement are more cost-efficient, effective, just, and humane than incarcerating people,” they added.

To read the full report, please click here. 

One thought on “‘Arrest, Release, Repeat’: The Tragic Cycle of American Jails

  1. The excuse for bad behavior is once again blamed on everything but the person themselves. Many of us came from low income to poor households or with single-parent households (1930-1970) (various ethnic & racial backgrounds) and were law bidding citizens! Also many of the multiple rearrest personnel were able to receive drug & mental assistance & obtain gameful employment through work-release programs, where individual businesses would receive tax breaks or stipends to train potential new employees, through many, if not all, jail or penal facilities, at taxpayer expenses, but choose not to participate in those programs because it required them to work at accomplishing something on their own! I know this for a fact because I participated in several of these programs both as a former law enforcement officer & a business owner. Responsibility of actions falls fully on the person committing the crimes & wanting to change their lives for the better, not on society. Many time as the old saying goes ‘you can bring a horse to water but you can’t make the horse drink!’

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