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February 2, 2021

"Local Spending on Jails Tops $25 Billion in Latest Nationwide Data"

The title of this post is the title of this new report from the Pew Charitable Trust folks.  Here are excerpts from the report's overview:

Historically, the roughly 3,000 local jails operating in the United States have received less public and policymaker attention than prisons.  But now, the COVID-19 pandemic has put jails — secure correctional facilities, generally operated by county or municipal governments, where people are detained before trial or confined post-conviction for periods usually lasting less than a year — under additional scrutiny.  Jails rely on close confinement and so are high risk for disease transmission.  Local governments are also confronting the budget implications of the pandemic and looking for potential savings, especially in costly areas such as corrections.

This environment provides an opportunity to examine correctional expenditures and consider strategies that may offer enduring public safety and fiscal benefits.  The available data indicates that to mitigate COVID-19 exposure risk, jurisdictions reduced jail populations by about 31% nationwide from March to May 2020, and although those populations partially rebounded, they were still 15% below March levels as of October 2020.  Further, people released from jail in March were readmitted less often over the ensuing six months than those released in January, suggesting that the pandemic-related decreases in jail populations did not affect public safety.  These reductions may not yield immediate savings, but a sustained commitment to safely cutting the number of people in jail could provide long-term financial benefits.  The recent experience of reducing prison populations offers a glimpse of the potential cost savings: The 9% drop in the prison population from 2008 to 2018 virtually flattened corrections spending, which had averaged 5.4% annual growth from 1991 to 2007.

To support state and local efforts to reduce jail spending and protect public safety, The Pew Charitable Trusts undertook an analysis of jail costs, using expenditure data for all U.S. localities, primarily from 2007 and 2017, and related criminal justice data..... 

Key findings include:

Local governments spend billions on jails.  As of the end of 2017:

  • Jail and other local corrections costs had risen sixfold since 1977, with jail costs reaching $25 billion.
  • Almost 2 in 5 dollars spent on state and local correctional institutions went to jails.
  • About 1 in 17 county dollars was spent on jails.
  • The average annual cost of holding a person in jail was about $34,000.
  • Roughly a third of jail facility capacity was more than 30 years old, and about 20% of jails were overcrowded, which could present significant capital challenges to local budgets.

Jail costs rose even as crime and admissions to jail fell.  As of the end of 2017:

  • A 20% decrease in crime and a 19% drop in jail admissions since 2007 had not led to reduced jail spending.
  • The portion of local budgets spent on jails did not correlate with state crime rates.
  • Small localities spent more per capita on jails than most other jurisdictions, despite having lower crime rates.

Nationwide, counties and cities are seeking to address budgetary pressures during these difficult fiscal times and for the long term.  New policies and practices — including many they already have embraced in response to the pandemic — can safely reduce jail populations and associated costs and help them achieve those goals.

February 2, 2021 at 05:56 PM | Permalink


Here in Kentucky, we have 102 counties. Some counties are quite small, with a population of just a few thousand people. Until 10 years ago, 110 out of 120 counties had a county jail. In most Kentucky counties, the cost of operating the county jail is the single largest expense for the Fiscal Court and Judge-Executive. In the last 10+ years, the number of county jails in Kentucky has dropped to about 82 in February 2021. Kentucky really needs a series of regional jails, such as West Virginia has, where every 4, 5 or 6 counties go together, build and operate a single jail for the common good. CV-19 has also changed the bond practices of most counties and Judges, as they try to minimize the number of incarcerated inmates during the Coronavirus era. Many inmates are now released on their own recognizance, or for surety bonds signed by family members, with little or no money changing hands. The rates for people missing Court appearances or getting new charges while oout on bond have changed almost not at all, about 4.4%.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Feb 5, 2021 10:26:53 AM

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