A Quick Tour of the Nation’s County Jails
Around the nation, county jails house defendants awaiting trial who’ve been denied bail or who can’t afford to post bond, as well as convicted offenders serving short sentences (typically less than a year) or awaiting transfer to state prison. Some jails also have contracts with the federal government to house detainees awaiting immigration proceedings or trial in federal court, and in some states with overcrowded prisons, the state pays county jails to house inmates (see also here). Under the name “county jail” you have everything from the massive Los Angeles County jail system which is bigger than some states’ prison systems (seven facilities with 19,000 inmates), to rural county lock-ups with just a few cells. Based on 2008 statistics, there are over 700,000 men and women detained in local jails nationwide at any given time (PDF p. 5). But since people are constantly cycling in and out of jails (and some return multiple times), it’s hard to know how many people in total are jailed each year. (One estimate I’ve seen is nine times the daily jail population, which would yield over 6 million people each year based on the 2008 numbers. Even if that’s wildly too high, the number is clearly somewhere in the low millions.)
Around the country, county jails are overcrowded, antiquated, and underfunded. Here’s a snapshot based just on news reports from the past couple days. In Dallas County, Texas, the jails’ fire safety systems don’t meet state standards. In Canadian County, Oklahoma, the jail is so overcrowded that the state fire marshal has threatened to shut it down. Wythe County, Virginia, has spent $55 million on a new facility because its jail population has doubled since 1999. Mahoning County, Ohio, is under a federal court order to cut its inmate population by over 100. Camden County, New Jersey, is considering privatizing its jail to save money. Floyd County, Indiana, just settled a lawsuit with 40 inmates who contracted staph infections (MRSA). In Erie County, New York, detainees awaiting arraignment can go hours or even days without access to basic hygiene materials. And detainees are sleeping on the floor in Las Vegas County, Nevada. (Though not anymore in Cook County, Illinois, which will soon be released from a long-standing federal consent decree.) DOJ statistics show that most inmate rape takes place in jails, not prisons.
When a county jail isn’t funded adequately or becomes overcrowded, everyone in that county’s criminal justice system — judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, sheriffs — starts to feel pressure not to send people to that jail. In states where counties don’t have to help pay the costs of their state inmates, that may mean sentencing an offender to state prison who might have otherwise been a good candidate for a shorter local jail term or probation. It may mean contracting with another county or even with facilities out-of-state to send detainees there, which takes detainees far from their families and, if they’re awaiting trial, far from their lawyers. Since so much of jail overcrowding is caused by pretrial detainees, you would think that counties might ramp up their use of other forms of pretrial supervision — supervised release, electronic monitoring, pretrial diversion into drug treatment, etc. — or even easier, simply release more defendants charged with low-level, nonviolent offenses on their own recognizance, as many jurisdictions did routinely until recently (in Harris County, Texas, the number of misdemeanor defendants ordered to pay bail increased 30,000% between 1994 and 2004). But bail bondsmen lobby heavily against pretrial alternatives, because they don’t make money off defendants placed on electronic monitoring or released on OR.