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Pew Study Shows Crime Falls but Spending on Jails Soar

The study begins by noting that the roughly 3,000 U.S. jails historically receive less public and policymaker attention than prisons. Yet, at current spending levels, they consume almost 6% of local budget dollars. “Almost 2 in 5 dollars spent on state and local correctional institutions went to jails,” the report stated. Local governments spent 521% more on corrections than they did in 1977.”

While jail costs increased by 13% from 2007 to 2017, crime decreased by 20% with two million fewer crimes. The study also found there was a 19% drop in jail admissions over that period, from 13.1 million to 10.6 million.

Rural areas with less than 50,000 people had the lowest crime rate, but had paid the second-highest amount per resident on jails. The study further found that jails with fewer than 250 people confined, “saw a 7% increase in population from 2007 to 2017, but their capacity increased by 17%, or just over 30,000 beds.”

The costs will only increase as jails age. About 30% of jails were 30 years old or older. After this time, jail infrastructure can begin to erode. With 20% of jails being overcrowded, the degradation could occur more quickly. Replacing jails is an expensive proposition, for new building new jails can cost more than $100,000 per bed.

The study noted that as counties and municipalities faced budget crunches due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they found ways to lower their jail population. ‘‘By continuing and expanding on policies that already have lowered confined populations during the pandemic, public officials can downsize their jail systems and potentially decommission older facilities, delivering meaningful taxpayer savings and protection of public safety,’’ the report concluded. 


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