Why you should care
You can’t fix a problem if you don’t know what it is.
Corner deals, drive-by shootings, old-lady muggings at nightfall. In the movies, it’s always the urban street crawlers that end up being corralled into the paddy wagon and hauled to the Main Street slammer. But Hollywood needs a new plotline.
Over the past 45 years, incarceration rates have grown fastest in rural and suburban areas.
Vera Institute, a justice policy nonprofit with offices around the country, has found that small- and midsize counties, which operate the vast majority of the nation’s nearly 3,000 jails, have largely driven skyrocketing prisoner figures. Since 1970, the incarceration rate in small counties has jumped 6.9 times; in midsize counties that number’s 4.1. The largest counties have grown their jail populations 2.8 times. Overall, during those years, the land of the free has gone from housing 157,000 Americans in municipal jails to 690,000.
The Vera team, which says this is the first time anyone has parsed the data to compare prisoner population growth rates, says it was hoping for a better look at what’s feeding our prison population. And that brings us to another thing that’s wrong with all those Hollywood corner drug deals. It’s not crime, which has been trending downward, driving this explosion. It’s the jails themselves. Put this in the “if-you-build-it-they-will-come” category. “As soon as a jail gets built, it gets filled up,” says Chris Henrichson, who is the lead on Vera’s Incarceration Trends project.
Back in the ’70s, most counties had roughly the same incarceration rates. While no one has any definitive answers as to why there has been disparate growth, there are a few guesses. Bigger counties have always had big, maxed-out jails, so when they needed more space, officials addressed pretrial and diversion policies (the majority of people in jail are awaiting trial), while smaller cell blocks simply expanded. As Kenneth Streit, a criminal justice law professor at the University of Wisconsin says, they “got smarter.” On the other hand, perhaps, the reason there’s been an increase in jail populations in certain areas is that at one time there was a deficit of beds and they’re simply playing catch-up.
Small counties with tighter budgets, particularly in the South, also rely more on fees, which if unpaid lands offenders back behind bars, setting in motion a vicious cycle. At the same time, while there are fewer arrests, if you are arrested, you’re more likely to be booked and more likely to have your release set to monetary bail, says Henrichson. Some observers, such as University of Chicago economics professor Steven Levitt in his paper “Understanding Why Crime Fell in the 1990s,” have argued that the rising prison population is precisely why crime is down. Then some jails may be housing state prisoners. Streit points out that in Wisconsin about 12 to 15 medium-size counties built lockups between 1990 and 2005 with the intent to house inmates from state prisons that were bursting at the seams. In California, the court has legally required state prisons to address overcrowding, shifting more of the burden to the local level.
At this point, we all know about the prison-industrial complex and overcrowding and how incarceration doesn’t do what we want it to. But we know less about how the populations ballooned to the point of America imprisoning more than any other nation, which may be a problem when it comes to reversing course. “We see this data as starting a conversation, to get people asking questions,” Henrichson says.