Since the 1970s, the incarceration rate in the United States has risen by over 700%. There are millions of people incarcerated in county jails and prisons at any given time. Though county jails see high turnover rates of inmates, their facilities are often overcrowded.
Overcrowding in county jails leads to poor living conditions for those incarcerated. It may prevent jails from meeting basic human needs, such as food, healthcare, and adequate sleeping accommodations. The consequences of overcrowding can be severe, which is why overcrowding is a pressing issue for many county jails across the country.
We'll discuss the causes that led to many county jails in the country becoming overcrowded. We'll also look at jail information statistics and the impact that overcrowding has on the jail population and the general consequences of this problem. Additionally, we'll cover possible solutions to prevent and address this issue.
Why Are American County Jails Overcrowded?
The US has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. Some estimates place the US incarceration rates as more than 5-10 times higher than other Western democratic countries. Other estimates show that the US incarcerates more people than larger countries like China and Russia.
The statistics of overcrowding in county jails vary by location. Some states see more issues with overcrowding than others. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistic's Prisoners in 2019 report data, Iowa, Nebraska, and Idaho have some of the highest rates of overcrowding in the country.
How did the US begin its mass incarceration issue? The US didn't always have the highest incarceration rates in the world. However, in the 1970s, politicians began a "tough on crime" campaign that adopted harsh sentencing policies for those convicted of a crime. A couple of these measures included mandatory minimum sentencing and three-strikes laws. These policies have led to overly harsh sentencing for minor and non-violent offenses, sometimes keeping those convicted in prison for decades.
However, the inmate population of county jails is different than that of prisons. County jails see a large influx of defendants that pass through the facilities. However, a large portion of the jail population has not even been convicted of a crime yet. While harsh sentencing contributes to overcrowding in prisons, county jails see many people stuck in pretrial detention. Defendants who have not been convicted of a crime may spend months in county jail before their trial.
Why are so many people imprisoned despite not being convicted of a crime? The judicial system has adopted cash bail policies for most crimes. Many people from lower socio-economic backgrounds find themselves at a disadvantage as they can't afford to post bail. Even defendants who pose no public safety risk must stay in county jail until sentencing if they cannot afford bail. As a result, people of color and disadvantaged communities suffer from the impacts of incarceration the most.
What Are the Consequences of Overcrowding in Jails?
As a result of harsh policies and the bail system, county jails have steadily become overcrowded in the last few decades. The results have negative impacts on inmates, jail staff, and communities. Overcrowded county jails can lead to unstable and unsanitary living conditions, which threaten the physical and mental well-being of inmates housed in the facilities.
With a lack of privacy, physical space, and resources, the jail environment for those housed in county jails can have serious effects on their health. For inmates stuck in county jail for months on end in pretrial detention, overcrowding exacerbates mental and physical health issues and may lead to increased violence and self-harm rates. Overcrowding can also lead to a high prevalence of communicable diseases and unsanitary living conditions.
Additionally, inmates may find that their physical needs are being unmet. Adequate healthcare, nutrition, and accommodations may be compromised due to overcrowding. When jail resources are being stretched too thin, rehabilitation and education programs may also be compromised. When this happens, the likelihood of recidivism increases which can affect entire communities.
What Are Possible Solutions for Overcrowding in County Jails?
Available jail information shows that overcrowding in US jails is a prevalent problem throughout the country due to previous "tough on crime" policies and the use of cash bail. Due to overcrowding, the health and safety of the prisoners are compromised. Additionally, due to a lack of available resources, inmates may not receive the resources they need to successfully reenter their communities, leading to high rates of recidivism.
How can the US address and fix the problem of overcrowding in jails and prisons throughout the country? There are a few different ways to combat the issue of overcrowding in jails. Some of the most effective ways to permanently reduce overcrowding in jails and prisons are to adopt policies that focus on rehabilitation, reduce the length of jail sentences, and greatly reduce those held in pretrial detention.
One way to prevent overcrowding in county jails is to keep minor problems out of the judicial system altogether. Diversion programs have been shown to have a positive impact on communities. These programs focus more on rehabilitation rather than punishment for those who commit minor offenses. The goal is to keep people out of the legal system and at home in their communities. In this way, diversion programs focus on the root causes of crime, such as economic inequality, mental illness, and substance misuse to prevent future crime and strengthen communities.
Another way to reduce the number of people in county jails is to limit pretrial detention. Inmates who are awaiting trial often spend months in jail despite not being convicted of a crime. To reduce the number of inmates housed in county jails while waiting for a trial, the judicial system should invest in alternatives to detention for offenders who pose no public safety threat.
There are also many people who are housed in county jails who are dealing with mental illnesses. Offering alternative arrangements that will specifically address their mental healthcare needs is crucial for dropping rates of recidivism and overall incarceration rates.
Overcrowding in county jails and prisons across the US has been a problem for decades. Due to ineffective and harmful policies, incarceration rates are incredibly high. Overcrowding can have serious consequences for those housed in jails, staff members of the facilities, and entire communities. With too many people incarcerated in county jails, the mental and physical health of inmates may suffer. Jails also observe higher rates of violence when overcrowded. Plus, the recidivism rates also go up. To avoid these consequences, there are a few possible solutions. Having alternative programs to divert low-level crimes out of the legal system, limiting pretrial detention, and addressing mental healthcare needs are essential to reducing overcrowding. Some county jails have adopted these practices. For more specific jail information, you can visit individual county jail websites. Use our search function to find your local county jail information.