With about 11 million people cycling in and out of jails each year and approximately 700,000 people in jails nationwide on any given day, it’s not surprising that counties often report to state leaders that their biggest budget item is spending associated with local jails.[54]

Given that approximately 60 percent of the jail population nationwide is awaiting trial, local jurisdictions are exploring ways to improve pretrial release decision making while maintaining public safety.[55] Many local governments across the country are adopting pretrial risk assessments, which assess people for risk of rearrest and failure to appear in court while awaiting trial. These tools can help courts determine who can safely be released pretrial and set appropriate release conditions, such as supervision, drug testing, or electronic monitoring. Since jurisdictions vary greatly in their use of pretrial risk assessments, some states provide either statutory or court rule guidance on the use of these tools to ensure that they are used consistently across jurisdictions.

Counties frequently face resource and technology constraints that can limit jail data collection. Jails rarely track and publish data showing how many people are booked into jail by offense type and risk level, whether they are in jail for supervision violations, how many people need behavioral health treatment, how long people stay in jail, and how many return. Only by analyzing such data, can counties determine if they are using jail space cost-effectively. For example, this data allows counties to assess the effectiveness of their pretrial practices, determine whether people who have behavioral health needs are held in jail longer than people without these needs, and understand how people who violate the terms of supervision are impacting jail populations. With these and other analyses, local leaders can make more informed decisions about how to use jail space cost-effectively.

State leaders can support consistency in jail policies and practices across the state and expand promising efforts to promote public safety and control costs statewide if they take the following steps:

  • Action Item 1: Support collection and analysis of jail data.
  • Action Item 2: Adopt policies that improve pretrial decisions and reduce burdens on jails.

State and local leaders can work together to cost-effectively use jail space

View the video to learn more about how states can work with local leaders to use jail space cost-effectively.

Todd D. Minton and Zhen Zeng, Jail Inmates, 2015.