Jails At Last Start to Empty

The U.S. rate of incarceration in prison has been dropping for five straight years. As I have written about before, the size of the jail population has been dropping for most of the same period, but less consistently because of California’s realignment policy, which expanded its massive jail population. Some recent revisions to a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics provide further evidence that jails are at last starting to empty out.

The revised report includes new information on “rated capacity” in U.S. jails, a measure of how many inmates can be held at one time. Astonishingly, after first being measured in 1982, this figure went up every single year for the next four decades. The break in the trend finally came in 2013, when national jail capacity fell by about 5,000 beds. Numerically, this is a small change, but after 40 years of unbroken increases, it’s a bellwether.

These national statistics resonate with recent on-the-ground reporting on counties and cities that are trying to sell off jails that they can no longer fill with inmates. Some localities are looking to sell off entire jail facilities, but I’d rather they use them to reduce their prison population. States could be pay counties and cities to take less dangerous prisoners into local facilities closer to their families. On the front end, empty jail cells are ideal for implementing swift, certain and fair community supervision programs that can serve as an alternative to being sent to prison for offenders with drug and alcohol problems.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.