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Survey: Jail Population Down but Incarceration Rates Higher for Whites, Women

by Jayson Hawkins

In April 2019 the U.S. Department of Justice released an analysis of its Annual Survey of Jails, which has tracked jail capacities, populations and demographics since 1982. The most recent year for which data was available, 2017, found the overall jail incarceration rate had dropped 12 percent from its peak in 2007, when 259 people were jailed for every 100,000 U.S. residents.

Despite a decline to 229 people in jail per 100,000 residents over the last decade, the United States still has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Breaking down the overall rate into demographic categories revealed some notable trends. While men were jailed at a rate 5.7 times higher than women, the rate for women has increased 10 percent since 2005.

Criminal justice reform legislation over the past few years has targeted racial disparities in the justice system. While it may be too soon to judge the impact of those reforms, the rate of blacks held in jail decreased 23 percent from 2005 to 2017. The rate for whites, on the other hand, jumped 12 percent during that same time period. The rate for Hispanics fell even faster than for blacks, dropping from 263 per 100,000 in 2005 to 185 per 100,000 in 2017.

The total jail population has remained fairly steady over the past decade at just under 750,000, but the creation of more than 128,000 additional beds lowered the average occupancy rate from 95 percent in 2005 to 81.4 percent in 2017.

The demographics of prisoners held in local jails have undergone significant changes, too. The percentage of whites in the jail population reached 50 percent in 2017, up from 44 percent in 2005. For blacks, the population dropped from 39 percent to 34 percent during that period, which meant there were roughly 50 percent more whites than blacks in jail by 2017. The Hispanic portion of the jail population has remained virtually unchanged at 15 percent.

Over a quarter of all jails exceeded 100 percent capacity in 2005. Large facilities have eased overcrowding in some jurisdictions, yet one out of every five jails was running at over 10 percent of their rated capacity in mid-year 2017. For jails rated to hold between 250 and 499 prisoners, those operating beyond capacity exceeded 30 percent.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, there are 3,163 city, county and regional jails nationwide, and around two-thirds of jail prisoners are pre-trial detainees who have not been convicted. There were 10.6 million jail admissions in 2017, which represented a 19 percent decline since 2007. 

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Sources: bjs.gov, prisonpolicy.org