In US county jails, many people are held before their trials despite not being convicted of any crime. As incarceration rates have increased nationwide over the last several decades, local jails are filling up with people who can't afford bail. Even as jails become overcrowded, the legal system still enforces bail policies for people who don't pose safety risks to the general public.
The implications of these bail policies are far-reaching. Prolonged detentions at county jails–despite not being found guilty of a crime–cause significant issues for individuals and the community as a whole. We'll dive deeper into some of the statistics of pretrial detention in county jails. In conjunction with this jail information, we'll also look at the implications it has on individuals and the community.
Why Are People Held in County Jails Before Their Trial?
The purpose and use of county jails are different than state or federal prisons. County jails are short-term facilities that house defendants who have not been convicted of a crime and inmates convicted of minor offenses who have been sentenced to short jail stays. People who have been arrested and charged with a crime will likely be placed in county jail until their trial.
However, at the bail hearing, judges will often set bail amounts according to the severity of the crime and risk to the public. For people who come from a wealthy background, posting bail means that they will be able to return to their daily lives soon after being booked into jail.
For people with a lower socioeconomic status, posting bail may not be a possibility. When this happens, defendants must remain in county jail until their trial where they will either be convicted of a crime or set free. Depending on the courts and the complexity of the charges, pretrial detention can last months. For those who have to remain behind bars despite not being found guilty of a crime, the effects are detrimental to their family, career, and mental health.
Pretrial Detention Statistics
Within the US justice system, there are many people housed in county jails awaiting a trial that may sentence them to a state or federal prison or may set them free. Recent statistics indicate that many people that are currently being held in county jail have not yet been convicted of a crime but are nonetheless spending weeks or months in pretrial detention.
The Number of People Waiting for Trial
Of the approximate 740,000 people held in county jails in a given time period, an estimated ⅔ of this inmate population has not been convicted or sentenced for a crime. The reason for this high percentage of people being forced to stay in county jail is because of an inability to pay bail.
However, in 2020, the jail population declined sharply. Though this change was due to the slowdown of legal proceedings rather than the result of policies to end mass incarceration. In 2021, the inmate population had begun to trend upward again.
The Average Length of Pretrial Stays in County Jails
The average length of pretrial stays in local jails varies. Some defendants remain in custody for months before they finally have their trial. This number varies based on other factors, such as the type of court and the complexity of the charges. This means that people who are innocent of a crime spend months in jail before having their case tried in court. They lose out on their freedom while facing challenges in and outside of jail.
What Are the Implications of Prolonged Detentions?
From jail information statistics, it can be seen that the majority of people confined to county jails have not been convicted of a crime yet spend months in jail. Because of current bail policies, people who are unable to afford the set bail must remain in jail regardless of whether they actually pose a threat to public safety.
The Impact on Legal and Employment Outcomes
There are wide-reaching implications from this jail information on county inmates. Some of the implications have to do with the accused person's case outcome as well as their personal life. People who cannot afford bail and are confined to county jails are less likely to have a positive outcome in their case. There are statistics that show people who were detained pretrial were more likely to be convicted of the charges filed against them than those who had been released on bail. This outcome is likely to do with being influenced to plead guilty to these charges.
Many inmates in county jail may have to deal with unemployment issues as a result of the months-long incarceration. They may also have lost wages and benefits during this time. For those with families, this may be a significant financial burden that could lead to greater instability for their loved ones.
The Impact on Mental Health, Family Life, and Communities
The effect that pretrial detention has on accused individuals' personal lives is also evident.
Many inmates may also deal with mental health struggles while in pretrial detention. Jails often do not provide adequate mental health care resources, resulting in high rates of suicide. Additionally, the jail itself can cause psychological distress that can lead to depression, anxiety, PTSD, or psychological distress.
There's also a significant impact on the families of those detained at county jails. Inmates miss out on important family moments and may have a hard time finding arrangements for childcare and other family-related responsibilities. Since pretrial detention can last for months, the lack of a steady paycheck is also likely to affect families.
There are also long-term effects on communities due to prolonged pretrial detentions. Many of those who are stuck in pretrial detention are disproportionately people of color. The cash bail system favors wealthy communities, while communities with lower socioeconomic status face high rates of pretrial detention. This can lead to lasting trauma, further economic hardships, and more crime.
From jail information statistics, it's apparent that a large portion of inmates housed in county jails are detained for long periods of time without being convicted of a crime. Additionally, pretrial detention has more to do with a lack of financial resources than it does with being a danger to the community. The implications of prolonged detention before trial have serious negative impacts on the individual, families, and the community.
The increasing likelihood of being convicted and the economic hardships mean negative outcomes for the individual, families, and communities that are hard to recover from. If someone you know is dealing with pretrial detention, it's important to help in any way you can. Our jail information search function will allow you to find inmates in county jails in whatever state you're located.