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Jail costs go up as crime goes down

Even as crime rates decreased and the numbers of people in jail went down, the costs of jails maintained by local governments increased, going over $25 billion in the latest available data, according to a recent report from The Pew Charitable Trusts.

More recently, though, the COVID-19 pandemic has precipitated changes in jail populations as officials look to minimize risk of transmission and save money to compensate for the costs of social distancing measures taken within the walls of jails. 

Black and white jail pod

According to the Pew report, available data show that jail populations were reduced by about 31% nationwide between March and May 2020. The populations rose again after that, but in October, were still 15% below the levels they were in March.

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The report says the COVID-19-linked jail population reductions didn’t appear to affect public safety; those who were released in March were readmitted at a lower rate than people released from jail in January 2020.

Unlike prisons, jails are operated on the county and municipal level for people held before trial and those serving shorter sentences for relatively minor offenses. There are about 3,000 jails in the United States. It costs an average of $34,000 a year to hold a person in jail.

Apart from the COVID-19 data, most of the information in the recent Pew report covers a period that ended in 2017. In that time, crime went down by 20% and jail admissions dropped by 19% since 2007. 

Also, in that time, jail costs increased 13% from $22 billion to $25 billion a year, adjusted to 2017 dollars. This was a bigger increase than total local expenditures, which increased 9% in that time for all categories.

Possible explanations

Apart from the COVID-19 changes, the Pew report cites two potential explanations for the fact that jail costs are increasing while jail populations are decreasing. It notes that the lengths of stay are increasing, as well as the costs of operating jails.

Ashleigh Holand

Data show that the average number of days spent in jail increased from 22 to 26 during the decade covered by the report. 

“There’s a lot of local discretion as to who gets to stay out of jail,” said Ashleigh Holand, director of programs and practices for the National Association of Counties, or NACo.

Holand said she expects the trend documented by Pew to continue for a bit, but then start to throttle and reverse as data from various initiatives are analyzed and alternatives to jailing are implemented.

Two factors determine length of stay in jail: Length of sentences and who is released before a hearing or trial. For those who stay in jail pending trial, administrative issues in the court system can affect how long it takes a case to resolve and how long an individual is held.

Holand said there’s been a lot of jail reform that focused on the “low-hanging fruit,” releasing low-risk individuals facing minor charges. But that reform hasn’t had a big impact because not many of those people were being held and those who were in jail tended to stay for shorter periods of time.

Safety and Justice Challenge looks at over-incarceration

She said 34 counties have been working with the McArthur Foundation on something called the Safety and Justice Challenge, which supports local leaders “working to safely reduce over-incarceration in jails, more effectively use taxpayer resources and protect public safety.”

That has led some counties to look at safe alternatives for community-based supervision of people facing trial for nonviolent felonies or accused of violating the technical terms of probation or parole.

Holand said participants in the challenge are examining decisions about who gets released and who stays in jail, as well as ways to speed up court processing. Although the data on that challenge, which has been ongoing for about four years, are not yet available, Holand said participants are anecdotally reporting lower jail populations. She said counties are “finding value in participating in the challenge.”

The challenges posed by COVID-19 are also causing officials to rethink tactics for approaching jailing and pushing leaders to “find new ways to carry forward those new tactics,” Holand said. The tactics aren’t necessarily bearing fruit financially, she said, because COVID-19 has also created court backlogs as jury trials and in-person court proceedings slowed or stopped.

“Counties are resilient,” she added. “They’re innovators. We’re exploring virtual court proceedings … trying new diversion tactics.” 

Jails’ impact on county budgets

Reductions in expenditures could have a noticeable impact on county government budgets. According to the Pew report, counties that operate jails spent about 6% of their budgets on them in 2017. This accounted for a third of all money the counties spent on public safety.

At the same time, about a third of jails are 30 years old or older, an age when infrastructure can degrade significantly. And 20% of jails were operating over capacity.

Holand said counties may need to build new jails, but generally try to minimize that kind of construction. “If you build something, you end up using it,” she said. “If you build it, you’ll fill it, so you try not to build if you can help it.”

With that in mind, Florida’s Miami-Dade, for example, decided to improve a jail but decided to include fewer new beds than the old one had, Holand said.

These changes are tracking with the receding of the idea of being tough on crime and locking more people up as a way to approach public safety, Holand noted. No matter one’s political leanings, she added, data is showing more effective means of protecting the public and spending tax money.

The social justice movement spurred on by last year’s George Floyd killing has provided further impetus to propel these initiatives forward, she said, including using data to examine who is jailed and for what reasons, looking for ways to avoid disparities.

“There are strategies we can use,” she said, “to advance justice causes while protecting public safety and reducing costs.” 

Contact Elaine Silvestrini at Follow her on Twitter at @WriterElaineS.