From 2010 to 2017, crimes, arrests, and resulting jail admissions fell by 14%, 20%, and 18%, respectively. In fact, 2017 saw 2 million fewer admissions to jails nationwide than seven years earlier. But despite these positive trends, the number of people in county and municipal jails barely budged, hovering around 750,000 in both years and costing taxpayers $25 billion annually.

Jails are typically funded and managed at the county level. However, their populations are influenced by state policies regarding arrest, bail, sentencing, and detention of people who have outstanding warrants or have violated the terms of their probation or parole, among others, which means state policymakers from all branches of government have a critical role to play when it comes to reducing jail populations.

In partnership with state officials, researchers, and advocates, The Pew Charitable Trusts works to advance consensus-driven state policies that safely reduce admissions to jail and the amount of time people spend there, expand strategies to ensure that defendants appear in court, reduce people’s likelihood of re-arrest while awaiting trial, support crime victims, and better align jail practices with research and constitutional principles.

Pew’s research and experience can help policymakers and other stakeholders better understand the evidence on jail populations and enact reforms that can reduce the number of people held in jails while protecting public safety and ensuring accountability.

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Local Jail Spending Grew 13% Over a Decade

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The nationwide economic downturn caused by COVID-19 has left U.S. counties with an estimated $202 billion in budget shortfalls for the current fiscal year. New research from The Pew Charitable Trusts suggests that localities may want to examine jail spending as they look for ways to curb costs in the coming months and years.

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Why Hasn’t the Number of People in U.S. Jails Dropped?

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Federal statistics show that from 2010 to 2017, crimes, arrests, and resulting jail admissions fell by 14, 20, and 18 percent, respectively. In fact, there were 2 million fewer admissions to jails nationwide in 2017 than seven years earlier. Still, despite these positive trends, the total number of people in county and municipal jails remained virtually unchanged.

Small but Growing Group Incarcerated For a Month or More Has Kept Jail Populations High
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Small but Growing Group Has Kept Jail Populations High

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The COVID-19 pandemic has focused attention on the more than 700,000 people in jails across the United States because of the potential for spread of the virus to those working and confined there.

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