According to the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), the American criminal justice system “holds more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 942 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the US territories.”
In other words, the United States has a mass incarceration problem.
In short, fear, drugs and profit are the driving forces behind America’s dubious distinction — the largest incarcerated population in the world. But research, advocacy and changes in politics have led to a push to reduce these numbers.
Many of the proposed changes have focused on federal and state prisons. Lost in the shuffle are the millions of people who enter jails each year. For true reform to happen, it must start at the more than 3,200 local jails in America.
The Prison Policy Initiative released a report in March which focused not just the vastness of incarceration, but also the reasons why so many are imprisoned. Within the data is an alarming statistic: “Every year, 636,000 people walk out of prison gates, but people go to jail over 11 million times each year. Jail churn is particularly high because most people in jails have not been convicted.”
Of the 646,000 people in local jails, more than 450,000 are not serving time for a convicted offense. Only 195,000 of them have been convicted — mostly for misdemeanors — and are serving time of less than one year. The remainder have been arrested and will make bail in a few hours or days — or await a judge if they cannot afford to pay the bail amount.
Surprisingly, the number of individuals entering jail is not due to an increase in criminal activity. Jail is being used as a punishment for minor infractions. For example, many cities rely on the money generated by traffic tickets and court fees to maintain their budget.
Since the police usually target poorer citizens, they become saddled with extra fees when they can’t pay the original fine. These individuals are often arrested and not released until they post bail or see a judge about the past due fines — which can sometimes result in days, or even months, jail time. In many places, jails have become de facto debtor prisons.
There are also a number of people who are arrested for violating the conditions of their probation. These individuals can end up in jail for a few days or for the remainder of their sentence. These factors, along with backlogged courts, have created overcrowding and dangerous conditions.
By design, jails are meant to be temporary facilities, housing those recently arrested, on parole violations or serving a sentence of a year or less. They do not have the resources to accommodate the current numbers of detainees.
In some cases, attempts to reform the system have backfired and made the situation worse.
In 2011, California began a realignment program in response to a Supreme Court ruling requiring the state to reduce overcrowding in state prisons. Measures included putting non-violent offenders in programs under local county supervision. People who would normally go to state prison are now allowed to spend a portion of their time in the county jail and the rest under strict supervision of the probation department.
Many counties lack the resources to maintain the supervision requirements, resulting in more time served. In Los Angeles County, the overcrowding became such an issue that bunk beds were placed in basement areas of women’s jails to handle the overflow. Violence increased in men’s jails, as overcrowding put more people alongside gang members — the traditional jail occupants.
Yet, 99 percent of the increase in jail population in the past 15 years comes from the “pre-trial” or “unconvicted” population. Large bail amounts can leave people in jail for weeks, months — and sometimes years. Many criminal justice advocates are pushing for bail reform that would reduce or remove bail as a condition for release, except for the most severe offenses.
Those unable to make bail are also unable to afford a lawyer. Instead, they must rely on an underfunded public defender system. It should be no surprise, then, that most “convictions” are a result of a plea bargain. The prospect of remaining in jail for a minor offense — even when innocent — is enough to convince people to accept a deal.
Jails are the key to true criminal justice reform. The money spent holding people for minor infractions would be better used to create alternative programs — especially for first time offenders.
Jail time for non-criminal offenses disrupts — and can even destroy — the lives of people who often already struggle. Like all things, real change starts with compassion and community.