Pew Study: Many Cities and Counties are Taking Steps to Reduce Jail Populations

Pew Study: Many Cities and Counties are Taking Steps to Reduce Jail Populations

A new report from The Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia Research Initiative finds that city and county officials throughout the country are taking steps to reduce jail populations in ways intended to save money, maintain public safety and make the criminal justice system more efficient.

The brief, Local Jails: Working to Reduce Populations and Costs, notes that the average daily local jail population in large jurisdictions declined in 2009—down 2.3 percent from the previous year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics—after climbing 30 percent from 1999 to 2008. This decline is the first in three decades.

“While it is too soon to tell whether this one-year dip is the start of a new trend, some local governments now facing severe budget pressures seem intent on making it so,” said Claire Shubik-Richards, senior associate at Pew's Philadelphia Research Initiative. “Reducing the jail population safely and in a sustained way requires the consensus of the criminal justice community, the support of elected officials and the acceptance of the public.”

The study includes analysis of jail populations and spending in 11 major urban jurisdictions: Allegheny County (which includes Pittsburgh), the city of Baltimore, Cook County (Chicago), Fulton County (Atlanta), Harris County (Houston), Los Angeles County, Maricopa County (Phoenix), New York City, Philadelphia, Suffolk County (Boston) and Wayne County (Detroit).

The drop in jail populations parallels a decrease in the total population of the nation's state prisons, which was documented in March by the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States. The net decline was 0.3 percent. The Public Safety Performance Project works to help states advance fiscally sound, data-driven policies and practices in sentencing and corrections that protect public safety, hold offenders accountable and control corrections costs.

In its new study, Pew's Philadelphia Research Initiative found that taxpayers and public officials in communities large and small are confronting the reality that more money for jails can mean less money for other government services, especially in these tough economic times.

In Cook County, which includes Chicago, a decline in arrests and changes in management practices have resulted in the closure of two jail units. In Tompkins County, New York, the creation of a day reporting center as an alternative to incarceration has helped officials make significant cuts in jail spending. In Spokane County, Washington, expedited plea agreements and new alternative sentences have reduced the average daily jail population by 36 percent in two years.

Over the past decade, county jails—facilities for defendants awaiting trial and sentenced offenders serving short-term sentences or awaiting transfer to state prisons—have consumed a greater and greater share of local tax dollars. Harris County, Texas, spends 14 percent of its entire budget on jails. Philadelphia, which is a combined city/county, spends more on jail than it spends on any other function besides police and human services—and as much as it spends on streets, sanitation and public health combined.

The recent decline in the jail population is particularly pronounced in Philadelphia. In the first week of November, the jail census there stood at about 8,000, down from a peak of 9,787 less than two years ago.

In the past decade, among the cities studied, the largest increases in jail population have been in Philadelphia and Allegheny County (both 49 percent) and Harris County (46 percent). The largest decreases have been in New York City (24 percent) and Fulton County (20 percent). The largest increases in jail spending, after inflation, have come in Maricopa County (106 percent), Philadelphia (52 percent) and Harris County (34 percent).

About the Report
Local Jails: Working to Reduce Populations and Costs is a nationally-focused follow-up to Philadelphia's Crowded, Costly Jails: The Search for Safe Solutions, an in-depth study by the Philadelphia Research Initiative on Philadelphia's jail population and the policies that explain its rise and fall. That study was published in May.

The update was written by Claire Shubik-Richards, senior associate at The Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia Research Initiative, and edited by Larry Eichel, project director of the Initiative. The work was done in consultation with the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States.

The jurisdictions studied were chosen based on several criteria. Suffolk County (Boston) and Baltimore were selected because they are in the same part of the country as Philadelphia; Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) because it operates under the same state legal system as Philadelphia; and Fulton County (Atlanta) and Wayne County (Detroit) because they have relatively high  crime rates. Also included were New York City and the counties containing the four other U.S. cities more populous than Philadelphia—Los Angeles, Cook (Chicago), Harris (Houston) and Maricopa (Phoenix).

The front facade of the Supreme Court of the United States in Washington, DC.

Agenda for America

Resources for federal, state, and local decision-makers

Quick View

Data-driven policymaking is not just a tool for finding new solutions for emerging challenges, it makes government more effective and better able to serve the public interest.


States of Innovation

Data-driven state policy innovations across America

Quick View

Data-driven policymaking is not just a tool for finding new solutions for difficult challenges. When states serve their traditional role as laboratories of innovation, they increase the American people’s confidence that the government they choose—no matter the size—can be effective, responsive, and in the public interest.