The United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the entire world. About two million adult inmates were currently incarcerated in the US during 2020 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This number includes inmates housed in state, federal, and county facilities.
However, recent statistics show a downward trend from previous years. Fewer people were reported in jails. Is this a continuing trend? The reason for this shift is attributed mostly to the COVID-19 pandemic. While there is a decrease in reported jailed inmates, statistics show that the US continues to lead the world in incarceration rates. We'll dive deeper into county jail incarceration rates, showing trends across various states.
What's the Difference Between Jail and Prison?
The US has high incarceration rates for both prison and county jails. However, though the two terms are often used interchangeably, there are some important differences between them. Prisons are populated by inmates who have been convicted and sentenced for a crime. Inmates in state or federal prisons are likely to be incarcerated for a significant amount of time. The amount of time varies based on the severity of the crime and other factors. However, inmates serving a sentence at state or federal prisons often have to serve multiple years.
County jails, on the other hand, house defendants who have not yet been convicted or sentenced for a crime yet. County jails may also have inmates who received short sentences for misdemeanors or minor crimes. Generally, people housed in county jails will not stay there for more than a year. For example, if a defendant has been sentenced to a short detainment, like 30 days, then the person will likely be detained in a county jail rather than a prison.
A person who has been arrested will be sent to a county jail before they await trial. Depending on the complexity of the charges and the severity of the crime, this can take months. However, if they are able to make bail, they will be released from jail until their trial. Typically bail is set a short time after arrest. So, for people who can afford to post bail won't have to stay in county jail for long. However, people who can't afford bail will have to remain in county jail even if they aren't convicted of a crime.
The US has a multitude of detention facilities throughout the country. Federal and state prisons, county jails, juvenile detention centers, immigration detention centers, and other types of jails are all part of the justice system. Because of the different types of facilities, interpreting data about the prison system can be confusing. However, understanding the difference between jail and prison will help to explain why there's such a big difference in incarceration rates between prisons and jails.
How Many People Are Incarcerated in Jail in the United States?
In the US, there are around 3,116 local jails. In 2020, there were around 8.7 million people who were admitted to a county jail. This number is a significant decrease from 2019 when 10.3 million people were admitted to a county jail. During the summer of 2020, the incarceration rate was estimated to be dropped by 25%.
However, it's difficult to pinpoint an exact estimate of jail incarceration numbers, as these numbers are constantly changing and fluctuating. In general, county jails are transitional or short-term facilities to house defendants who have not been sentenced yet or inmates who are only serving a short sentence. Because of this revolving door of inmates, the number of inmates detained in jails on a given day is constantly changing. However, it's difficult to determine the exact number of all people incarcerated in the US, as you'll have to count all federal, state, county, juvenile, and other types of detention facilities.
Jail incarceration significantly declined in 2020–a sharp contrast to the upward trend from the previous decade. However, since no action has been taken to address to main causes of such high incarceration rates in the country, this decline in rates during the pandemic is a fluke rather than indicative of the broader trends of incarceration.
What Trends Have Emerged From Recent Incarceration Statistics?
The jail incarceration statistics from the US Census Bureau are only a snapshot of a short moment in time. During the pandemic, the court system slowed down, which caused delays and moved proceedings online. There were also fewer traffic stops and aggressive police tactics, which further reduced the number of people arrested and sent to county jail. However, the long-term trends of incarceration rates indicate that the US will revert back to pre-pandemic levels. Since these measures were only temporary and specific to the beginning of the pandemic, they won't create lasting effects on incarceration data trends.
There are also significant racial disparities according to jail incarceration rates in the US. During the pandemic, statistics showed that incarceration rates dropped across the country. However, while the total number of people committed to county jails decreased, the racial disparity increased. Black people in the US were jailed more frequently during this time than white people. So, even though the incarceration rates showed a decline, the pandemic also highlighted the glaring racial disparity in the justice and legal systems.
Statistics also show that during this time of overall decrease in jail incarceration rates, white people's incarceration rates were noticeably declining more significantly than other demographics. This shows a racial disparity throughout the legal process.
What States Have the Highest Rates of Incarceration at the County Jail Level?
The states with the highest levels of jail incarceration rates are mostly located in the southern US. Some of the states with the highest incarceration rates include Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas.
Though a lot of these states have large rural populations, they have consistently trended upward in incarceration rates. In general, county jails in rural areas have had higher rates of incarceration than in urban areas in recent years. Racial disparity is also particularly prevalent in rural communities, while urban areas have started to make steps toward progress. People of color continue to face higher incarceration rates in rural areas. A trend that's likely to continue if the root causes are not addressed.
Overall, the US has many people incarcerated yearly. As a country with one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, the statistics continue to show an upwards trend towards higher incarceration rates across the country. Despite the fact that the pandemic decreased some rates, this decline is unlikely to continue in the future. The decrease in rates was only a temporary solution rather than addressing some of the main issues that cause such high rates in the country. The statistics also show the racial disparity evident in the legal process. This trend is also likely to continue unless the root issues are addressed. If you're looking for more information on individual county jails, you can find specific jails with our search engine.