The misuse of jails is neither inevitable nor irreversible, but charting a different course will take leadership and vision.




Incarceration's Front Door: The Misuse of Jails in America

Local jails exist in nearly every town and city in America. While rarely on the radar of most Americans, they are the front door to the formal criminal justice system in a country that holds more people in custody than any other on the planet. Their impact is both far-reaching and profound: in the course of a typical year, there are nearly 12 million jail admissions—almost 20 times the number of annual admissions to state and federal prisons—at great cost to the people involved, their families and communities, and society at large. Through research, publications, and technical assistance to local jurisdictions, Vera aims to foster public debate and policy reform to reduce jail incarceration, repair the damage it causes, and promote safe, healthy communities.

Vera’s work to address over-reliance on jail incarceration began in 1961 with the Manhattan Bail Project, which demonstrated that, when guided by appropriate assessment, courts could safely release many defendants without financial conditions and achieve better appearance rates than those released on bond.  Since then, Vera has worked with more than 200 jurisdictions to analyze the challenges facing local justice systems and develop practical and transformative responses.  Recent work has included research and recommendations to reduce jail overcrowding and improve jail reentry services in Los Angeles County; the establishment of the first comprehensive pretrial services program in New Orleans; and the creation of a multi-agency database in Washington, DC to support treatment services and healthcare coverage for people with mental illness involved in the justice system.
Vera’s current project areas dedicated to reducing the use of jail incarceration include:
  • Expanding the knowledge base on the causes and consequences of jail incarceration. Policy and practice reform to reduce the use of jail should be informed by solid research. Vera researchers are exploring critical issues surrounding the use of jail incarceration and the impact of diversion and alternatives.

    The Price of Jails
  • Testing new ideas. Following the legacy of the Manhattan Bail Project, Vera continues to work with local jurisdictions to develop and test practical and transformative reforms to reduce the use of jail incarceration and tools for achieving those reforms.

    A new initiative to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails.

Why Jails?

With almost 12 million admissions every year, local jails have a far broader impact on the daily lives of communities than state and federal prisons. Intended to house those deemed to be a danger to society or a flight risk before trial, jails have become massive warehouses primarily for those too poor to post even low bail or too sick for existing community resources to manage. Three out of five jail inmates are being held pretrial and are presumed innocent, and 75 percent of both pretrial and convicted inmates are jailed for nonviolent property, drug, or traffic offenses. They are disproportionately from minority communities and far more likely than those in the general population to suffer from serious mental illness and substance use disorders. Although most defendants admitted to jail over the course of a year are released within hours or days, even a short stay in jail can have dire consequences. Research has shown that spending as few as two days in jail can increase the likelihood of a sentence of incarceration and the harshness of that sentence, reduce economic viability, promote future criminal behavior, and worsen the health of the largely low-risk defendents who enter them—making jail a gateway to deeper and more lasting involvement in the criminal justice system.


Human Toll of Jail Fact Sheet
There are more than 3,000 jails in the United States, holding 731,000 people on any given day—more than the population of Detroit and nearly as many people as live in San Francisco. But there’s more to the story of jail incarceration than just the numbers. In collaboration with media publisher...
The Price of Jails: Measuring the Taxpayer Cost of Local Incarceration
*/ Jails are far more expensive than previously understood, as significant jail expenditures—such as employee salaries and benefits, health care and education programs for incarcerated people, and general administration—are paid for by county or municipal general funds, and are not reflected in...
Incarceration's Front Door: The Misuse of Jails in America
*/ Local jails, which exist in nearly every town and city in America, are built to hold people deemed too dangerous to release pending trial or at high risk of flight. This, however, is no longer primarily what jails do or whom they hold, as people too poor to post bail languish there and racial...