While New York City with great fanfare recently approved a plan to close the notorious Rikers Island jail complex, in rural and suburban America the jail building boom continues–with all sorts of negative consequences, according to a new report from Vera Institute.
“Jail construction has vastly expanded America’s capacity to incarcerate people,” according to the report, titled “Broken Ground: Why America Keeps Building
More Jails and What It Can Do Instead.”
In 1970, there were 243,000 jail beds in the United States. After more than four decades of many counties constructing new jail facilities or expanding existing ones, total jail capacity reached 915,100 beds by 2017.
In analyzing this increase, the key is location, location, location. Between 2005 and 2013, jail capacity declined in urban areas by 9 percent, but it grew by 11 percent in rural areas, suburban areas, and mid-sized cities, the Vera report reveals.
“Due to decades of ‘tough on crime’ criminal justice policies that drove up the use of arrest and incarceration, the national jail population grew between 1980 and 2008 in lockstep with this upward trend in jail construction,” said the report. “In the past decade, however, the number of people in jail has declined, yet jail capacity nationwide has grown by 86,400 beds.”
The Vera study dug into the reasons for the increase. A survey of a sample of counties across the country found three primary arguments that county officials make in favor of larger jails.
“These include health and safety concerns due to overcrowding and/or aging facilities; the need for space and infrastructure to improve the quality of specialized services (such as medical services, mental health treatment, and programming); and the opportunity for a revenue source to help cover the city or county’s jail operating costs.”
The report disproves each of these arguments and explains how they contribute to jail overuse and misuse.
“The push to increase jail beds to improve health and social services can also backfire: the inherent harms of incarceration may limit the effectiveness of new service capacities, and investment in corrections-based treatment services may divert resources for similar community-based supports,” said the report.
“Finally, counties hoping for a financial payout from renting jail beds sometimes find that the costs of constructing and operating a bigger jail exceed such income.”
The cycle of jail growth and overcrowding is not an inevitable feature of local criminal justice systems, the report points out. Many counties have rejected this assumption, breaking ground on new policies rather than new jails.
In fact, 67 percent of respondents to a 2018 poll commissioned by Vera agreed that “building more jails and prisons to keep more people in jail does not reduce crime.”
For more information on America’s rural jail crisis, see The Crime Report‘s special resource page.
The Vera report was written by Chris Mai, Mikelina Belaineh, Ram Subramanian, and Jacob Kang-Brown. To read it in full, go here