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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.