Mass incarceration has been a problem in our country for the last several decades. The US has one of the highest incarceration rates in the entire world. From overly harsh sentencing to disproportionately affecting people of color, there are many problems with the current state of our nation's justice and legal systems.
The US government has imposed a "tough on crime" attitude that has led to the incarceration of millions of Americans every year. Particularly in county jails, the number of Americans jailed in these local facilities is incredibly high compared to the rest of the world. However, in the last decade, statistics show a downward trend in incarceration rates that reflect a change in the way the public views incarceration.
We'll go over some of the most recent jail information about inmate population trends across county jails. We'll also discuss how these trends may have been influenced by factors such as crime rates, sentencing policies, and the impact of diversion programs.
Trends in the Last Decade
Available jail information has shown a few notable trends in the last decade among inmates. The first trend is the slight decrease in incarceration rates. With factors such as decreasing crime rates and the adoption of diversion programs, there has been a positive move in the right direction for decreasing mass incarceration.
These factors may have also contributed to the second trend, which is a slight decrease in the racial disparity seen over the last few decades. However, it's important to note that these trends indicate only a slight decrease. The US justice system still has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, which disproportionately affects people of color.
A Slow and Steady Decrease in Incarceration Rates
Though the US continues to lead the world in high incarceration rates, there's been a marginal decline in rates in the last decade. Thanks to the shifting cultural attitudes toward the prison system and the way we view crime, rates have been slowly declining since 2010. Factors such as falling crime rates, less harsh sentencing policies, and diversion programs may have contributed to these lower statistics seen in jail information.
In the last ten years, the number of inmates in county jails has slightly decreased. Additionally, the rate of racial disparity within the jail system has also slightly decreased over the last decade. However, it's important to note that there still exists a wide racial disparity in incarceration rates in the country. In order to close that gap, there will need to be significant reforms to the justice system.
What Factors Have Contributed to Changes in Inmate Trends Within County Jails?
There has been a general and slow decline in the jail population in the last decade. Additionally, though people of color are disproportionately represented within county jails, there's been a slow decrease in rates over the last decade. More people and local leaders are realizing the ineffectiveness that mass incarceration has on reducing crime, plus the negative impact that high incarceration rates have on the community.
As the cultural attitude toward mass incarceration has shifted in recent years, more politicians and local leaders are looking for alternative solutions to incarceration to reduce crime rates and improve general public safety. This may look like reversing strict and harsh policies that were passed during the 80s and 90s. Alternative solutions, such as diversion programs, have also been shown to have successful outcomes in reducing crime and incarceration rates.
Changes in Crime Rates
Around the 1970s, politicians started a campaign to combat crime. Since then, the prison and jail populations have grown exponentially, leading to the mass incarceration of millions of Americans. At the start of the 1990s, the crime rate was high nationwide. However, crime rates have dramatically dropped in the years since then. From 2010 onwards, the imprisonment rates have marginally declined as well.
However, with the onset of the global pandemic in 2020, violent crime rates dramatically increased. Additionally, there was a large decrease in the jail population. However, both of these statistics are not indicative of broader trends. In 2021, the jail incarceration rates returned to levels similar to pre-pandemic. Likewise, crime rates decreased in 2021.
From the 1970s onward, mass incarceration has become a huge problem due to the government's "tough on crime" stance. Sentencing such as minimum mandatory sentencing laws took effect. The 1994 Crime Bill essentially gave money to states that enforced policies that grew jail populations.
Progress has been made in some areas of the country in the last decade to reverse course on unfair and harsh sentencing policies that have led to mass incarceration that disproportionately affects people of color and communities with historically lower socioeconomic status. However, though public attitudes toward mass incarceration have shifted, there are still unfair and harsh sentencing policies in place around the country.
The Impact of Diversion Programs
As more people realize that mass incarceration does not meaningfully address public safety and in fact actively harms communities, local jurisdictions have looked for ways to improve public safety and keep people out of jail. One of the ways that prosecutors are addressing these issues is through diversion programs instead of jail time.
What are diversion programs? These programs offer an alternative to jail and keep people out of the legal system. Instead of a focus on punishment, these programs focus on rehabilitation and resources to address underlying causes, such as education, food, housing, employment, and mental health care.
How do they impact individuals and the local community? Diversion programs are meant to help improve the long-term safety of communities and individuals. Jails and prisons have been shown to have a negative impact on communities and have little to no effect on improving local crime rates. Diversion programs keep citizens out of the legal system and with their communities. These programs have been shown to be more cost-effective than incarceration, improve community safety, and help to reduce crime.
The US has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, ever since the "tough on crime" political stance that led to mass incarceration. However, as public opinion has shifted on the effectiveness of harsh policies, there's been a slow decline in incarceration rates in the last decade. Some local communities have adopted less harsh sentencing policies and gained diversion programs instead.
These changes are a shift in the right direction. However, according to statistics people of color are still overrepresented in the legal system, showing the stark racial disparity in our nation's justice system. County jails see millions of adult Americans admitted to their facilities every year, so there is still a long way to go in course-correcting mass incarceration. For help finding specific jail information, use our search function to look up county jails in each state.