Report says Americans are being robbed of justice by the nation’s jails
by Sam Rolley
When politicians and activists talk about prison reform, they seldom mention the 3,000 jails that serve as detention centers at the municipal and county levels throughout the nation. But that could change following the release of a new report highlighting an alarming increase in the number of Americans incarcerated in the facilities for minor violations.
The justice system is designed to reserve jail for the detention of people awaiting trial who have either been deemed a threat to the public or who pose a significant flight risk. But according to the study, “Incarceration’s Front Door: The Misuse of Jails in America,” a majority of the nearly 731,000 people locked away in the nation’s jails on any given day fall into neither of the aforementioned categories.
In fact, the study released Wednesday by the VERA Institute of Justice says that 75 percent of the people locked up in local and county jails throughout the nation were picked up on nonviolent minor offenses such as skipping fare on public transit, driving on a suspended license or failure to pay government fines. Drug crimes account for about one-fourth of the charges that land people in U.S. jails.
That would explain why the rate of jail incarceration in the U.S. has nearly tripled since 1983 as the rate of violent and property crime has plummeted.
“While the country has continued to grow safer — at least by the most common measures of public safety — an ever-larger proportion of the population is being sent to jail, though research demonstrates that there is little causal connection between improved public safety and an increased use of incarceration,” the report notes.
And as the number of Americans held in jails has increased over the past three decades, so too has the length of time individuals picked up by police are likely to stay in jail. The average jail stay as of 2013 was 23 days, according to the report.
In many cases, the report says, prisoners are doing time pretrial — meaning that some Americans are doing considerable amounts of time in cases where the state can’t prove they’ve committed a crime.
“[S]ince the proportion of jail inmates that are being held pretrial has grown substantially in the last thirty years — from about 40 to 62 percent — it is highly likely that the increase in the average length of stay is largely driven by longer stays in jails by people who are unconvicted of any crime,” the report states.
Increases in pretrial incarceration throughout the nation are largely due to the inability of many defendants to raise the funds required to post bail, according to the report. And bail amounts are often set too high for a defendant’s charge because of court fee schedules and prosecutors who pile on charges in hopes that something will stick.
“When out-of-reach bail amounts are combined with overloaded courts, a situation arises in which defendants can spend more time in jail pretrial than the longest sentence they could receive if convicted,” the report points out. “These cases, in particular, turn our ideals about justice upside down. Sentenced to ‘time served’ and released, the system punishes these individuals while they are presumed to be innocent, and then releases them once they are found guilty.”
Worse yet, many low-income people find themselves back in jail for failure to pay mountains of court-mandated fees.
The report also ascribes the increasing number of Americans in jail to a number of other factors, including: misguided “war on drugs” policies, informal arrest quotas in police departments and the arrests of mentally ill people who need medical care rather than incarceration.
Whatever the reason for the increase in the number of those jailed, VERA says it is having a negative impact on community safety and stability in addition to the taxpayer bottom line.
On paper, local jurisdictions spend a combined $22.2 billion on jails annually. But taking into account the societal consequences of disrupting lives, jobs and housing situations with jail time for minor offenses, the report argues that the figure ends up being much higher.