Why Are Jail Populations Level as Crime Has Dropped?

While crime has fallen dramatically in recent decades, the number of people in jail for committing crimes has not, Keith Humphreys of the Stanford University faculty writes in the Washington Post. New data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics show that jails held 745,200 inmates in 2017, almost the same total as the 747,500 they held in 2005 and significantly higher than the 584,400 they held in 1998. Why are jails full in an era of lower crime rates? An increasing number of people are jailed while awaiting trial. That figure has soared 45.3 percent, from 331,800 in 1998 to 482,000 in 2017. The number of convicted inmates in local jails is about the same as 20 years ago (252,600 in 1998 vs. 263,200 in 2017).

By jailing more people who are awaiting trial, the criminal justice system can keep jails full no matter how much crime falls, Humphreys says. This may be seen good by the hundreds of thousands of people who work in jails, the companies that supply jails food and other services, and places that value correctional facilities as a form of economic stimulus. Humphreys urges more bail reform, including automatic releases of people accused of low-level crimes. Jurisdictions that have experimented with this approach have found rates of appearing at trial in excess of 98 percent. Humphreys believes that states, cities and counties should consider closing or downsizing jails.

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