You might think our local jails are working tirelessly to contain the hardened criminals who pose a true menace to society—but mostly you’d be wrong. To a large extent, they’re housing the poor, who can’t afford to post bail, the mentally ill, and the helplessly drug-addicted.
An extensive report from the Vera Institute of Justice examines the failures of the local jail system, which often gets less national attention than the prison system. Many of their findings are stunning: almost 75 percent of America’s jail population of 731,000—a larger population than all of Detroit—is being held for nonviolent offenses.
In New York City, nearly 50 percent of cases given jail time were for a misdemeanor or less. And in Los Angeles County, in 2008, the largest group jailed was those charged with traffic and vehicular offenses.
One of the more disturbing trends described is the descent of jails into “de facto mental hospitals.” According to a government survey, 60 percent of jail inmates reported experiencing a mental health disorder in the last twelve months. 14.5 percent of men and 31 percent of women in jails have a mental illness—compared to 3.2 percent of men and 4.9 percent of women in the general population.
Many of those jailed also have problems with substance abuse—particularly if they are mentally ill. 72 percent of the mentally ill in jail have a substance abuse disorder, and 34 percent had been using at the time of their arrest.
They’re not likely to find much help in the jails. Although 68 percent of inmates have drug problems, few jails have the funding for drug treatment programs. Four out of five of the mentally ill received no treatment while behind bars.
“I was startled by the numbers of people detained for behavior that stems primarily from mental illness, homelessness, or addiction,” Vera’s president, Nicholas Turner, wrote in an introduction. “As Vera’s president, I observe injustice routinely. Nonetheless even I—as this report came together— was jolted by the extent to which unconvicted people in this country are held in jail simply because they are too poor to pay what it costs to get out.”
These problems are exacerbated by an increasingly aggressive justice system. The rate of annual admissions to jails almost doubled between 1983 and 2013, and the average length of stay also increased over the same period, from 14 days to 23. The likelihood arrests end in a jail stay has gone up drastically, from 51 admissions into jail per 100 arrests to 95 per 100.
This expansion has been pricey: local jurisdictions spend a whopping $22.2 billion a year on correctional systems–a 235 percent increase since the 1980s.
But, despite all this investment, recidivism rates are dismal: “In Chicago,” Vera reports, “21 percent of the people admitted to jail between 2007 and 2011 accounted for 50 percent of all admissions.”
Vera’s numbers include those who are merely detained before trial, but notes that “even a short stay in jail is more than an inconvenience…Just a few days in jail can increase the likelihood of a sentence of incarceration and the harshness of that sentence, reduce economic viability, promote future criminal behavior, and worsen the health of those who enter.”