Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Attention Journalists, Sociologists, Grad Students, etc.: Spotlight Needed on the Nation’s Local Jails

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Rikers Island, America's largest psychiatric facility (photo: Paul Lowry)

Although this blog is titled Prison Law Blog, I’m starting to wonder if I shouldn’t put jail into the title somewhere. I’ve blogged before about how Rikers Island has become America’s largest mental health facility (more here), and about the myriad problems that plague the nation’s overcrowded, underfunded local jails. In the new Daedalus issue on mass incarceration that I mentioned last week, Loic Wacquant argues that students of the American criminal justice system would do well to turn their focus on jails:

As a result of intensified policing coupled with a rising propensity to confine miscreants, American jails have become gargantuan operations processing a dozen million bodies each year nationwide, as well as huge drains on the budgets of counties and pivotal institutions in the lives of the (sub)proletariat of the big cities. Indeed, because they treat vastly more people than do prisons, under conditions that are more chaotic due to high turnover, endemic overcrowding, population heterogeneity, and the administrative shift to bare-bones managerialism (the two top priorities of jail wardens are to minimize violent incidents and to hold down staff overtime), jails create more social disruption and family turmoil at the bottom of the urban order than do prisons. Yet they have remained largely under the radar of researchers and policy analysts alike.

Wacquant’s comments ring especially true with respect to places like New Orleans that have relied heavily on detention as both a crime control strategy for serious crimes (though often without charges ever being filed) and a revenue generation strategy for minor offenses, as described in this recent Crime Report interview:

The jail in Orleans Parish held roughly 7,200 people at the time of the storm. The rate of detention in local jails was greater here than in any other city in the country, and that’s still the case: it is now three times the national average. [Part of the problem is] an absence of a pre-trial service system. New Orleans detains virtually all the people who come before a magistrate, unless they’re able to pay their bond. It used to take 64 days to get a simple drug case from arrest to first court appearance; because of our alliance’s work it now takes 10.5. If the person cannot post the bond then they’re incarcerated throughout this time. Now, with marijuana cases, 10.5 days in jail before seeing a judge is still unacceptable, so we moved those cases to the Municipal Court where they are heard in one day. But even in cases in which the normal sentence is rarely jail time, defendants serve at least 10.5 days in jail on minor offenses. …

Part of the resistance to [expediting misdemeanor cases] was that the state court from which the cases were being moved objected to losing the revenues from those cases. In marijuana cases particularly, defendants have a little money and could pay the court fees. And since there are so many of these cases, it amounted to $200,000-$300,000 in lost revenue to the state court.

Wacquant notes that the last major close-up study of day-to-day life in a large urban jail was John Irwin’s ethnography, The Jail: Managing the Underclass in American Society (UC Press, 1985). Perhaps it is time for an update from an intrepid sociologist?

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