Racial Disparities in County Jail Populations

Racial Disparities in County Jail Populations

With one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, US county jails receive millions of admissions every year. Throughout previous decades, there has been an upward trend in incarceration rates that's likely to continue. In 2020, there were 8.3 million people arrested and booked into county jail. 

However, in county jails across the country, statistical data indicates there is a racial disparity in the makeup of incarceration rates. Despite being a lower percentage of the overall population, sources indicate that black adults were imprisoned at five times the rate of white adults as recently as 2020. Why is that?

Researchers suggest that there are a few different factors to consider when addressing the racial disparity seen in American jails and prisons. We'll go over some of the data that exposes the racial disparity present in county jails. We'll also discuss some of the general factors contributing to this disparity. 

What's the Difference Between County Jail and Prison?

The US leads the world in incarceration rates, including both county jails and prisons. The two facilities are often thought of as the same place, but there are some differences between them. In order to better understand the data, you'll need to know how the two facilities differ from each other. 

State or federal prisons house inmates who have been convicted and sentenced to a crime. Typically, these sentences result in multiple years of imprisonment. In comparison, county jails house defendants who may not even be convicted of a crime yet. It's the facility where people who have been arrested are detained until their bail hearing. Because of its transitory nature, the number of inmates in county jails is constantly fluctuating compared to state or federal prisons. 

Because of its role as an in-between holding facility for defendants, county jails have a higher number of people admitted to them per year than prisons. However, for people who are able to make bail, their length of stay in these facilities is often very short. People who aren't able to make bail must stay in county jail till their trial. 

County jails also hold inmates who have been sentenced for minor crimes or misdemeanors. These types of crimes generally result in short jail sentences. For example, an inmate may only be sentenced to 30 days for their crime, so they'll likely stay in county jail rather than prison.

What Are the Demographics of County Jail?

In 2021, jail information indicates that the demographics of local jail facilities show white people made up 49%, black people made up 35%, Hispanic people made up 14%, and other races made up 2% of the population. Despite only being 13% of the total US population, black people make up 35% of the local jail population, indicating racial disparity throughout the legal system. Hispanic Americans also faced disproportionate incarceration levels compared to white Americans.

Even when incarceration rates dropped nationwide during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the racial disparity in the legal system was evident. The incarceration rates for white people during this time dropped more significantly than the rates for black people. Additionally, people of color face higher incarceration rates in rural counties, even where they account for only a small percentage of the population.

Why Are Some Groups Overrepresented in County Jail?

Jail information shows a racial disparity in incarceration rates. People of color are overrepresented in our country's criminal justice system. Why are certain groups overrepresented in the jail system? There are many factors contributing to why some racial and ethnic groups are overrepresented in jails. A lot of these factors have to do with economic disadvantages, law enforcement tactics, and court decisions. 

Length of Stay

Because county jails hold inmates who have not yet been convicted of a crime, the length of stay is dependent on a defendant's ability to post bail. For people who come from wealthy backgrounds, posting bail is more feasible than for people with lower socio-economic backgrounds. So, the people being housed in county jails because they can't be released on bail, typically are economically disadvantaged.

The racial disparity in county jails is exacerbated by the ability to pay bail. Since black people have historically faced economic disparity, many people who have been arrested for a crime cannot pay bail. There is also research to suggest that black people often face higher bail amounts than white people accused of similar crimes. 

Economic Disadvantages

Because of the US's history of segregation, black people have been isolated in underfunded communities. The lack of funding has led to structural disadvantages, including poverty. These disadvantages have led to issues in communities, such as a lack of education, poor nutrition, lack of access to mental and physical healthcare, and a lack of employment opportunities. All of these issues have been associated with higher arrest and incarceration rates. 

Behavioral Health Disorders

Studies show that incarcerated people frequently deal with behavioral health disorders, such as substance abuse or mental illness. Because of access to mental and physical healthcare and discrimination, black people are less likely to receive necessary care. This factor might contribute to the racial disparity seen in incarceration rates in county jail information.

Law Enforcement and Court Decisions

Discrimination and over-policing in black communities might also be contributing factors to the racial disparity seen in county jails. Police may have more surveillance in black communities, leading to more arrests. Court decisions may also be affected by race, with some judges inaccurately assessing a defendant's bail risk, leading to unfair decisions concerning bail and release before trial. 

Though these factors have been shown to play a role in the racial disparity seen in local jails. There is a lack of accurate and consistent jail information, which can make it difficult to determine the exact causes of racial disparity in jails. Having more readily available data concerning inmates' mental health, criminal history, and other factors would help pinpoint direct causes of racial disparities present in the legal system.

The US is one of the world leaders in high incarceration rates. In county jails, millions of people are admitted into a facility in a given year. Of that number, a disproportionate number of black people are jailed. Because of a multitude of factors, racial disparity is present throughout the legal system, including in county jails. The reasons for this disparity have to do with the historical disadvantages black people have faced in this country and which continue to affect structural systems. However, the data on individuals incarcerated within county jails that could help determine the root causes of racial disparities is not readily apparent. If you would like to look up information on specific county jails, our search function can help you find a particular county jail.