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.
Pew’s analysis of public data illustrates that jail costs rose for at least a decade, even during a period of falling crime rates and admissions to jail. The study also notes that meaningful reductions in jail populations, which have remained large and stagnant despite declines in crime, could help localities control their corrections expenses.
Although local jail expenditures receive far less public and policymaker attention than do state prison outlays, local governments spent $2 on jails for every $3 states spent on prisons in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available. That same year, local jail costs topped $25 billion.
Nationwide, crime and admissions to jail decreased 20% and 19%, respectively, between 2007 and 2017, yet spending on jails grew 13%. As of 2017, jails consumed almost 1 in 17 local budget dollars, more than libraries, parks and recreation, and housing and community development combined. And Pew’s analysis showed that small localities spent more per resident on jails than most other jurisdictions, even though they have lower crime rates.
One reason costs have not fallen is that jail populations have remained stubbornly high: Admissions to jail dropped 19% in the decade ending 2017, but populations declined only 4% over that period because the average time people remain in jail has gotten longer.
But the coronavirus pandemic has shown that communities can curb jail usage. Since March 2020, many jurisdictions have reduced jail populations to mitigate the risk of exposure to COVID-19 for people who work and are confined in jails. The available data indicates that jurisdictions cut their jail populations by about 30% nationwide from March to May 2020, and although those populations partially rebounded, they remained 13% below March levels as of Jan. 27, 2021. Individuals leaving these facilities during the pandemic were more likely to stay out of jail than those released pre-pandemic, suggesting that COVID-related decreases in jail populations did not affect public safety.
Although jails carry substantial fixed expenses, such as utilities, some of the most significant jail costs, including health care, can rise and fall with the population. Confining fewer people may also lead to decreases in costs related to renovating aging jails or building new ones. Pew found that, as of 2017, roughly a third of jail space is more than 30 years old and about 20% of jails were operating over capacity, which could present substantial capital challenges to local budgets. Shrinking jail populations could help delay the need for replacement and mean lower costs when repairs or construction of a new facility is required.
Population reductions may not yield immediate savings, but a sustained commitment to policies that safely decrease the number of people in jail and rein in costs may relieve some of the fiscal pressure on local governments. By making strategic, long-term policy decisions that sustain the lower jail populations achieved during the pandemic, officials can curb jail costs, navigate the fiscal downturn, and protect public safety.
Jake Horowitz is a director and Kyleigh Clark-Moorman is a senior associate with Pew’s public safety performance project.