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Prison Policy Initiative Report Addresses Jail Populations

by Derek Gilna

The non-profit, Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) published a report on May 31, 2017 that argued local jails, which hold “one of every three people behind bars” in the United States, have for too long been ignored by state policymakers. “Jails may be locally controlled, but jail practices reflect state priorities and change state-wide outcomes,” the report said.

The number of individuals held in local jails is staggering: In addition to the 1.6 million people incarcerated in federal and state prisons, 646,000 are locked up in more than 3,100 jails throughout the U.S.

Adding to the human tragedy of this excessive confinement, over two out of three jail prisoners are pretrial detainees who have not been convicted of a crime and are thus presumed innocent. Unfortunately, the use of money bail in our criminal justice system inflates jail populations unnecessarily, as indigent defendants are unable to post bonds to secure their release. It comes as no surprise that local jails are filled with people who are mostly poor.

As noted in the PPI report, “65% of the jail population meets medical standards for having a diagnosable substance abuse disorder; 15.3% of the jail population reports being recently homeless compared to just 2.0% of the general population; 52% of people in jail are people of color, compared to only 28% of the general population. Black people are jailed at 4x the rate of white people; [and] 7.7% of the adult jail population identifies as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, compared to 3.5% of the general population.”

PPI offered several suggestions to address these worrisome statistics. It strongly encouraged states to reclassify non-violent misdemeanor offenses as non-jailable crimes, to issue citations “in lieu of arrests, for certain low-level crimes,” and to explore treatment-based diversion programs for people with substance abuse and mental health problems to help reduce jail populations.

The report also recommended that “poverty no longer be criminalized” by encouraging judges to “use non-monetary sanctions, rather than fines and fees,” and to hold “indigency hearings before imposing and enforcing unaffordable fees.” Money bail should be abolished, PPI added.

Finally, the report suggested that states actively monitor how decisions by local prosecutors impact criminal justice populations, require prosecutors “to collect and publish aggregate data on bail decisions [and] charging decisions,” and collect other data to determine whether prosecutorial decisions magnify racial disparities and result in more people being incarcerated – thus affecting not only jail populations but also state prison populations. 

Sources: “Era of Mass Expansion: Why State Officials Should Fight Jail Growth,” Prison Policy Initiative (May 2017);


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