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Even as U.S. Jail Population Declines, Average Length of Stay Rises

by Ashleigh N. Dye

A recent study published in December 2021 suggests that even as U.S. jail population was falling between 2014 and 2019, the length of stay for each incarceration was on the rise.

The study, Understanding Trends in Jail Populations, 2014-2019: A Multi-Site Analysis, was conducted by the Data Collaborative for Justice (DCJ) and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts to take a deep dive into jail population data from three urban counties: Durham in North Carolina, Louisville-Jefferson in Kentucky, and St. Louis in Missouri. The findings revealed that the average length of stay (LOS) increased in all three counties over the five years studied, rising 18% in Louisville-Jefferson, 24% in Durham and 20% in St. Louis.

Of the three primary drivers in this increase, the study said the most significant is bail. People whose bail was set higher than $5,000 spent 31%–to–54% longer in jail. Other important factors included age—younger people 18–24 years old saw the greatest increase in average LOS over the study period—and seriousness of the charge, with the LOS for those facing more serious charges increasing by more than 23 days in two of the three counties studied.

Blacks had a disproportionately longer average LOS when compared to their white counterparts, staying in jail an additional 3.3 to 12.1 days depending on the county. Blacks also had higher jail admission rates in all three counties, whose Black share of the general population was between 24% and 37% but whose jail admissions were 39%–to–69% Black. In Durham, where Blacks are 37% of the general population, they accounted for 69% of jail admissions.

All three counties saw jail admissions decrease from 2014 to 2019: 28% in St. Louis, 25% in Durham and 22% in Louisville-Jefferson. That dovetails with statistics compiled by the Vera Institute of Justice, which showed that after U.S. jail incarceration rates peaked in 2007 at 270 per 100,000 residents, they declined gradually until taking a deep dip at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to 172, a rate not seen since 1990. Since then, the rate has been on the rise, but at 196 in Spring 2021, it remained almost 27.5% below its peak 14 years earlier. 

Source: Pew Charitable Trusts 

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