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Crime is Down But More People in Jail

Washington Afro, News Report, James Wright Posted: Apr 07, 2008

Crime has steadily declined over the past three decades but there are more people in jail for reasons that have nothing to do with the severity of their crimes, according to a new report.

The study, "Jailing Communities: The Impact of Jail Expansion and Effective Public Safety Strategies" was released this week by the Washington, D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute.

Co-authored by Amanda Petteruti and Nastassia Walsh, the report said that communities are bearing the cost of a massive explosion in the jail population and that jails are now warehousing more people who have not been found guilty of any crime for longer periods of time than ever before.

"Sean Levert died in a jail in Cleveland because he did not pay child support. I know that we have to hold people accountable, but do we have to put people in jail for that?"

Because of the rising costs of bail, people arrested today are much more likely to serve jail time before trial than they would have been two decades ago, even though crime rates are nearly at their lowest levels in 30 years.

Additionally, the report said that the jails are filled with people with mental health issues, immigration violations and those who are homeless. It states that six out of 10 people in jail are struggling with their mental health.

Petteruti, one of the co-authors, observed: "Twenty percent of the people in this country's jails are not legally guilty. They have not been convicted of anything and yet they are sitting in jail. That's not right and it doesn't make sense."

Petteruti used the example of recently deceased rhythm and blues singer Sean Levert as an abuse of the system. "Sean Levert died in a jail in Cleveland because he did not pay child support," she said. "I know that we have to hold people accountable, but do we have to put people in jail for that?"

Jailing has a steep fiscal cost. In 2004, local governments spent a staggering $97 billion on criminal justice, including police, the courts and jails, the report said.

More than $19 billion of county money went to financing jails alone. On the other hand, the report said that local governments spent just $8.7 billion on libraries and only $28 billion on higher education.

"These counties just cannot afford to invest the bulk of their local public safety budget in jails, and we are beginning to see why the more a community relies on jails, the less it has to invest in education, employment and proven public safety strategies," Walsh said.

The report said that there are racial disparities in who gets to stay in jail. Latinos are most likely to have to pay bail and the least able to do it.

Blacks are nearly five times as likely to be incarcerated in jail as Whites and three times as Latinos. Immigration violations are being jailed at an increasing rate, up 500 percent in the last decade, the report said.

Los Angeles County, Calif., has the most people in its jail system with 19,062, according to the report that drew on Department of Justices Bureau of Statistics data. Washington, D.C., is ranked 30th with 3,214 people jailed.

Philadelphia County, Pa., has the nation's highest incarceration rate in jail per 100,000 with 602. The District is ranked seventh on that list with 553.

Baltimore statistics were not compiled because the number of people held in prison and jail are not counted separately. Prince George's County was not included in the report because it does not have enough inmates in the sample population.

"Prince George's jail population was not large enough to be included in our survey," Petteruti said. "Its inmate population is 1,450 and it is not among the 50th largest in the country, even though it is close."

The report confirms the growing trend of incarceration in the United States. The Sentencing Project, a District-based organization that studies and advocates for fair sentencing patterns, stated in 2006 that the U.S. leads the world with people incarcerated with 7 million behind bars, on probation or on parole.

Declaring that the jail situation is unacceptable and costly to local governments, the report offers solutions such as proposed easier bail requirements for non-violent offenders, developing alternatives to incarceration, diverting people with mental health and drug treatment needs to treatment center and specialists, and providing more money for education, employment and affordable housing.

If anything, Petteruti said, she hopes that the report will generate dialogue. "We want activists, policy makers and politicians to start talking about jails," she said. "A lot of people talk about prisons but jails are left out of the discussion. We want this report to start a conversation about them."

Related Articles:

In Philly, Urban Crime a Health Concern

Los Angeles Communities Fight the Grip of Terror

U.S. Leads World in Jailing Children

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