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Jails - Jail Populations

inmates percent local capacity

Until 1970, no national data existed on jails and their populations. That year, the U.S. Bureau of the Census conducted the first national census of jails for the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Additional censuses have been conducted in 1972, 1978, 1983, 1988, 1993, and 1999; sample surveys of jails and jail inmates have been carried out in every noncensus year since 1983.

According to the 1999 Census of Jails, local authorities held and/or supervised 687,973 offenders at midyear of 1999, reflecting an increase of 3.5 percent from the previous year. About 12 percent of these offenders were supervised in alternative programs outside the jail facilities, such as day reporting, weekend reporting, electronic monitoring, community service, or work release programs. The remaining 605,943 inmates were confined within the jails. While jail populations remained relatively stable during the 1970s, the picture changes dramatically during the 1980s and 1990s. The past two decades have witnessed a dramatic expansion of incarceration in American jails and prisons. Since 1990, the country's jail population increased on average 4.6 percent per annum (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000). However, the most recent count of jail inmates shows that the growth rate from 1998 to 1999 is only half the growth rate recorded between 1990 and 1999 (2.3% compared with 4.6%). As a result, there is some reason for hope that the appalling jail expansion of the past two decades may be finally abating.

As important as jail population counts are for understanding the magnitude of the local corrections problem, they do not begin to explain the full impact jails have on the lives of inmates or on America's system of justice. This is because jail inmates are highly transient populations, with some detainees staying for as little as a few hours and about half of the sentenced population serving six months or less (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1998). The full importance of jails only emerges when population movement is considered. Jails in the United States admit and release over twenty million people per annum. Jails, therefore, handle more inmates than prisons. With the exception of traffic enforcement encounters, jails touch more lives than does any other agent of the criminal justice system.

During the 1980s and 1990s, jails became dangerously overcrowded due to the rapid increases of jail populations. While many jails systems furiously added bed capacity, inmate populations outpaced most of these efforts. As a result, the occupancy capacity in many jails exceeded 100 percent. For example, in 1990, the rated capacity of local jails, which is the number of beds or inmates assigned by a rating official to facilities in each jurisdiction, was 389,171 beds. Even though 21,402 beds had been added that year in various jurisdictions, the percent of capacity occupied was 104. During much of the 1990s, jail capacity hovered around 97 percent. The first turnaround in these dismal statistics did not come until 1999. That year, the rated capacity of the counties local jails reached 652,321, reflecting an increase of almost forty thousand beds added during a twelve-month period ending at midyear of 1999. This singular spurt in construction of jail bed space brought the occupancy rate down to 93 percent. But little comfort can be taken from this statistic. This is because jail populations vary much at the regional, state, and local levels. For example, in 1999, seven states incarcerated more than half of all local jail inmates: California, Texas, Florida, New York, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana. By contrast, ten states with the smallest jail populations each held fewer than three thousand inmates. Collectively, the latter states held only 3.1 percent of the country's total jail population (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000). Seven states and the District of Columbia exceeded jail capacity, with occupancy rates falling between 102 and 120 percent. By contrast, the total jail population of six states was below 80 percent.

It is important to note that jail populations bear no close relationship to the size of the population the jail serves or to a particular jurisdiction's crime rates. This fact emerges most clearly when incarceration rates are examined. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (2000), the number of jail inmates per 100,000 in the population reached 220 by midyear 1999. Of the seventeen states with rates greater than that for the country, eleven were in the South, four were in the West, one was in the Northeast, and one in the Midwest. States with the largest number of jail inmates per 100,000 population were Louisiana (585), Georgia (421), Tennessee (358), and Florida (337). By contrast, the incarceration rates of four states—Maine (89), North Dakota (92), Iowa (104), and Minnesota (105), were less than half of the national rate. Population size and the crime rate do have a modest effect on the size of jail populations, but other issues have greater relevance (Klofas). For example, there are substantial variations in statutes, law enforcement, and court practices, the use of alternatives to incarceration, the assumption of state control over local facilities, the closing or opening of correctional facilities, court orders to reduce prison and jail populations, and public opinion. Together, these factors explain much of the variance in the nation's jail incarceration rate.

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