The NCSL Blog


By Amber Widgery

At least 700,000 people were held in local jails each day during 2015, marking the first time local jail population reached that number. By contrast, the number in 1970 was just 157,000 people.

Hands through prison barsThis growth can largely be attributed to increasing jail populations in small, particularly rural, counties, according to a new report from the Vera Institute of Justice.

The substantial growth in rural jail populations is due to two underlying trends, the report says: Rural jails have the highest rate of growth in pretrial detention in the country and financial incentives encourage rural jail systems to house inmates from other authorities, such as state corrections departments.

The authors acknowledge these trends are likely because of a variety of factors, but they specifically point out that fewer system resources are available in rural jurisdictions. This lack of resources can result in fewer judges to hear cases in a timely manner, fewer or no pretrial release services, and fewer opportunities for diversion.

State legislators and local jurisdictions have been working on front end justice solutions to appropriately reduce jail use.

Since 2012, every state has enacted a law addressing the pretrial release process resulting in more than 500 new enactments. New Jersey and New Mexico have passed substantial constitutional amendments altering the pretrial process. The reforms in New Jersey have already resulted in reduced jail populations statewide, and the new law authorized courts to detain the state’s highest risk defendants, who would have previously been eligible for release.

Many local jurisdictions have also been taking steps to reform who is held in their local jail systems. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has supported that work in 40 jurisdictions via the Safety and Justice Challenge, a five-year, $100 million initiative to reduce overincarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails.

Want to learn more about what exactly states and local jurisdictions are doing to reform the front end of the justice system? “Locked Up: Reforming Bail and the Front End of Justice,” a session at NCSL’s Legislative Summit will answer that question and feature California Senator Robert M. Hertzberg D), Laurie Garduque from the MacArthur Foundation, and Marc Levin from Right on Crime.

You might also be interested in “First Stop: Jail or Treatment?” a session focused on policies deflecting individuals away from arrest and prosecution and how it is an emerging public health approach to criminal justice issues.

More details about these and other law and criminal justice sessions at Summit can be found here.

Amber Widgery specializes in pretrial, justice involved mental health, and drug crime policies for NCSL.

Email Amber

Actions: E-mail | Permalink |

Subscribe to the NCSL Blog

Click on the RSS feed at left to add the NCSL Blog to your favorite RSS reader. 

About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.