Criminal justice data tools can help city leaders answer this question. Here’s how to access and use those tools.

By Laura E. Furr.

The past two decades’ rapid rise in jail populations has come at great short- and long-term expense to cities, along with mixed effects at best in terms of public safety. City leaders, often joining forces with partners in county government, can reduce the overuse of jails to improve public safety and life outcomes for residents. The YEF Institute’s City Roles to Reduce the Overuse of Jails for Young Adults initiative seeks to support cities to take informed action to reduce the use of local jails for young adults.

City leaders seeking support to gather basic data about jail use can join a webinar at 3:00 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, June 22, 2016. The webinar will introduce the Vera Institute’s Incarceration Trends online tool, which is useful for identifying long-term trends in jail populations, and identify sources within the city for additional data. Register here.

National Trends

Incarceration rates rose dramatically over the past few decades, and the U.S. now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Local jails represent a huge, largely ignored portion of that increase. The nearly 12 million local jail admissions every year is almost 20 times the number of prison admissions.

(Infographic courtesy of

(Infographic courtesy of

Nationally, jails detain a disproportionate number of young adults, people of color, and people with substance use and mental health needs. For example, African Americans comprised 13 percent of the general population but 35 percent of the jail population. In addition, the number of women in jail has grown 14 times, compared to a four-fold growth among men.

Each local system contributes to these national trends and pays a price for over-incarceration. Small cities, in particular, may have paid a particularly high price. The Vera Institute of Justice’s new research revealed that small jurisdictions comprise the largest contributors to the massive increase in jail incarceration over the last decade.

Some cities have been able to successfully reduce jail populations – and understanding the data around your jail system can help your city achieve success as well.

National Trends Reflected in Smaller Communities

Understanding your local system’s data can help cities plan appropriate responses. Cities can start by answering these six questions about who is in their local jail. The YEF Institute’s initiative focuses on young adults because of the outsized impact jail has on the lives of young people, but these questions apply to everyone in jail.

  1. How has the county’s rate of incarceration changed over the last ten years?
  1. How many people has the city’s police department arrested and booked into jail in each of the past five years, specifically by age, race and ethnicity, gender, ward or neighborhood of arrest, and offense?
  1. Of the jail population, what shares represent: a) persons held pre-trial, b) persons held for violations of probation, and c) persons serving short sentences?
  1. How many people does the jail detain on each amount of cash bail, specifically by age, race and ethnicity, and offense?
  1. How many persons held in the jail have mental health or substance use needs?
  1. What share of local jail costs does the city bear, for instance, per bed night utilized or from the city’s capital budget?

City leaders can use the answers to these questions to inform new policies and practices about who should be arrested and taken to your jail and why. City leaders should also engage communities heavily impacted by incarceration to learn more before taking action.

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Originally posted at Cities Speak.