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Vera Institute for Justice Reports Tracks Prisoner Increase from 1970 to 2014

The Vera Institute for Justice, a non-profit research organization, has completed an ambitious aggregation and analysis of the county-by-county increase in incarceration from 1970 to 2014.  Starting with figures provided by the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), and using statistical tools to fill in gaps in data and analyze the results, the Vera Institute came up with some surprising conclusions.

It is well known that the United States, with approximately 5% of the world's total population, has in correctional custody 25% of the world's prisoners on average. However, most of those prisoners are not found in state or federal prisons, but in local and county jails. Vera has gone behind those percentage increases by reviewing the incarceration figures of the country's approximately 3000 counties, taking the BJS data and mining it to provide additional insight to where the rapid increase in prisoner counts since 1970 has occurred.  Although there is no question that federal and state correctional facilities have played their part in driving this increase, Vera's study, which removed their data from their analysis, shows that the most rapid prisoner increase has been in the smaller county jails, rather than the medium and large sized facilities, and this increase in prisoner counts continues even now, when most experts see the need to decrease prisoner counts.

Whereas large counties, defined by Vera as  those with more than one million inhabitants, held 38% of all the nation's prisoners in 1970, that percentage declined to 24% in 2014, the last year of the study for which complete BJS data was available.  For medium-sized counties with 250,000 to one million people, the numbers declined from 34% to 32%.  However, in small counties, those with under 250,000 inhabitants, the share of prisoners in the same time period jumped from 28% to 44%.

Another disturbing trend revealed in the study was the increasing number of "super jails," those holding more than 1,000 prisoners.  Although these facilities were once found only in the largest counties, the study says, they have since "become common in mid-sized counties that comprise smaller cities and suburbs." That growth has been most noticeable in the middle-sized counties, where the number of such jails has increased from 6 to 92 since 1970.

It should then come as no surprise that the incarceration rates in the smaller and medium size counties have also exceeded those of the larger counties. The number of jail admissions in the same time period reflects this pattern, with the 2 million and 3.5 million admissions in large and medium counties far outstripped by the 5.5 million admission in smaller county jails.

According to Nicolas Turner, President of Vera notes, "identifying the growth of the incarcerated population closer to home puts the problem in a context that is easier to grasp. We hope that the lessons of this report... compiled for every U.S. county at policymakers...with some of the tools needed to end the country's over reliance on jails."


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