With many jurisdictions nationwide facing large backlogs of court cases because of COVID-related shutdowns, counties are taking a fresh look at ways to manage jail populations. Although much of the focus in recent years has been on reducing admissions, the average amount of time that people spend in jail has been steadily increasing over the past decade. Just-released national data for 2020 shows a 6% jump in average length of stay over the previous year.
A new report by the Data Collaborative for Justice at John Jay College, in partnership with The Pew Charitable Trusts, points to the need for a more comprehensive approach to reducing jail populations that takes into account both how many people are admitted and how long they stay. “Understanding Trends in Jail Populations, 2014 to 2019: A Multi-Site Analysis” reviews detailed data from three county jails and finds that average length of stay over the study period increased 18% in Louisville-Jefferson County, Kentucky; 20% in St. Louis County, Missouri; and 24% in Durham County, North Carolina—despite significant declines in admissions over the same period.
The longer stays were primarily driven by people whose bail had been set at more than $5,000 (with jail time growing by 54%, 42% and 31% in the three counties, respectively) and people held on more serious charges. Although they made up less than 1 in 4 admissions in 2019, people with these high bail amounts in all three counties occupied more than 2 in 3 jail beds. In 2019, those admitted to the three county facilities for a violent felony charge spent, on average, more than 100 days in jail, compared with fewer than 40 days for a nonviolent felony and fewer than 9 days for a misdemeanor.
Other key findings include:
- Admissions dropped 22% in Louisville, 25% in Durham, and 28% in St. Louis over the period examined. These reductions were greater than the 1%, 19%, and 24% respective declines in average daily population. The difference can be explained by increasing length of stay.
- In all three counties, admissions fell for both misdemeanors and felonies and across offense types (property, drug, person, traffic, and society). Lower-level offenses had the largest drops: Admissions were cut in half for drug charges in Durham and traffic charges in Louisville.
- Racial disparities exist in all three jails. In all counties, Black individuals stayed in jail longer on average (3.3 to 12.1 days more, depending on the location) than White individuals. Similar disparities were evident in admissions and share of occupied beds.
- In Louisville, Black people made up 24% of the county population but 39% of jail admissions and about half of occupied beds.
- In Durham, Black people accounted for 37% of the general population but more than 2 in 3 admissions and 3 in 4 occupied beds.
- In St. Louis, Black people made up a fourth of the general population but more than half of admissions and 2 in 3 occupied beds.
- In all three counties, 40% or more of those released from jail in the first year of the study were readmitted at least two times during the period of analysis.
Although these findings are specific to the three jails, they provide more evidence and greater detail on the growing length of stays in jails, identified in earlier Pew research. Reducing the time that people spend in jail can mitigate pandemic-related health concerns for those housed and working in these facilities, and help counties prioritize resources for public safety.
Julie Wertheimer is the project director and Tracy Velázquez is a manager with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project.