11 Facts That Will Change The Way You Think About Jails In America

A new report by the Vera Institute of Justice that shows just how costly jail stays can be for inmates, for their communities, and for taxpayers.

On Wednesday, the nonprofit Vera Institute for Justice published a new report on the state of jails in the United States.

Based on a large-scale analysis of government statistics, original research, and a review of existent literature, the report found that many more people pass through local jails than through federal prisons.

It also found that a large percentage of jail inmates come from marginalized populations, that they often remain in jail simply because of lack of money, and that even a short stint behind bars can have profound negative effects on a person's life.

Here's what you need to know.

1. There are a ton of people in jail — like, a ton.

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You've probably heard the phrase "prison-industrial complex," but judging from the Vera report, "jail-industrial complex" may be more accurate.

Jails and prisons are not the same thing, even though the two words are often used interchangeably. Prisons are run by the federal government or by states. Jails are the responsibility of local governments — towns and cities.

Turns out the vast majority of people who enter detention facilities in the United States are booked into jails. The rate of admissions for the nation's 3,000 local jails is nearly 20 times higher than that of prisons,a ccording to the new Vera report.

Every year, some local detention facilities register some 12 million admissions — the rough equivalent of the populations of New York and Los Angeles combined. On any given day, there are some 730,000 people in jail — that's more than the whole population of Detroit.

2. And more people are being sent to jail than ever before, even though the country is safer than it used to be.

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The proportion of Americans in jail grew dramatically between 1983 and 2007 — from 96 people in jail per every 100,000 Americans to 259 per 100,000, the report found. In the past two years, the proportion has declined to 231 per 100,000, but that's still considered very high.

The increase in the jail population happened during a period when crime across the country decreased dramatically. Some people may think that the decrease in crime was a result of putting more people behind bars, but Vera's experts disagree.

"Research demonstrates that there is little causal connection between improved public safety and an increasing use of incarceration," the report's authors wrote.

3. The vast majority of people sent to jail are legally presumed innocent.

Vera Institute of Justice

The vast majority of people in jail have not been convicted of a crime, which means they are legally presumed to be innocent. They are typically waiting for a judge and jury to decide whether they are guilty — or, more likely, for a prosecutor to offer them a deal in exchange of a guilty plea without trial.

That means the immense majority of people incarcerated in America have not been determined to have committed a crime, but are being punished nonetheless. They are being held on the presumption that they would pose a risk to the community.

But those assumptions could be mistaken. Most jail inmates would not pose a risk to public safety if released — according to Vera, 75% of all jail inmates are accused of nonviolent offenses, such as traffic violations or public disorder.

4. Those being held in jails are also disproportionally black and mentally ill.

Vera Institute of Justice

People in jail tend to come from disadvantaged backgrounds — whether because they belong to a racial minority, because they are mentally ill, or because they are poor.

Black people make up about 13% of the population of the United States, but they comprise nearly 36% of all jail inmates, according to Vera.

A full 60% of jailed people have had symptoms of mental illness in the past year. Nearly 7 in every 10 jail inmates have a history of drug or alcohol problems. Often, though, these factors coexist in the same people. Many jail inmates are mentally ill, but also have a history of substance abuse.

The Vera report found that a significant portion of these disparities originate in discriminatory policing practices, in which police departments focus their attention on small-time crime committed in poor and minority neighborhoods.

5. Most people are in jail because they are too poor to buy their way out.

Vera Institute of Justice

Today, most people who are arrested are offered financial bail — the chance to wait for their trial at home in exchange of giving the court a certain amount of money as a guarantee that they will not run away.

The problem is that most people offered bail cannot afford to pay for it. Today, the average bail for a serious offense is $55,400 — some $4,000 more than the median yearly income, according to Vera.

In practical terms, this means only the rich can afford to get out of jail. Thousands of people booked into jail, then, remain incarcerated simply because they don't make enough money.

People who cannot afford bail have the option of hiring a private bail agent, also known as bondsman. But that can mean making an onerous bargain that can have terrible consequences.

What's more, multiple studies have shown that personal wealth is not a good way to predict whether someone will try to run away rather than face trial, nor to asses the risk a suspect poses to the community, according to the Vera report.

Instead, looking at community ties, employment, and previous criminal history are much better ways of assessing whether someone should be released while they await trial.

6. If you wait in jail for your trial, you may find yourself waiting for a long time.

AFP / Getty Images Robyn Deck

Courts in the United States are terribly overburdened, which means that people who are jailed before their trial sometimes spend months behind bars before they are convicted of anything.

For example, a large sample of inmates accused of felonies and incarcerated in Los Angeles pending trial spent an average 53 days in jail before their cases were resolved. A quarter of them were in jail for more than 80 days.

Most strikingly, 800 defendants spent more than 200 days in jail before they were found innocent or guilty.

7. Those in pretrial detention are also more likely to get prison.

Vera Institute of Justice

The Vera report found that low-risk inmates who are jailed before their trial are four times more likely to be sent to prison than those who are allowed to spend their trial at home. What's more, those prison sentences were three times more likely to be longer.

This is part because most defendants never actually go to trial, but instead make a deal with the prosecutor that typically involves pleading guilty in exchange for a reduced prison sentence. Inmates who are already incarcerated are also typically pressured to take a deal, even if it's not very appealing.

"Defendants already in jail receive and accept less favorable plea agreements and do not have the leverage to press for better ones," the authors of the Vera report wrote.

But as the study notes, even if an inmate resists those pressures and makes it to trial, having waited in jail can hurt their chances. The Vera report found that jurors are more likely to think defendants are guilty if they arrive in court wearing a jail uniform.

8. When you leave jail, you are likely to be poorer than when you entered.

Vera Institute of Justice

Spending time in jail can cost you your job, your government benefits, and leave you with mounting debts, the Vera report found. It can also make it harder for you to get a new job, as employers are wary of hiring people who've been incarcerated.

What is more, many jails actually charge their inmates for their room and board, and will add fines and fees if the bill isn't paid on time.

The financial impact of going to jail is likely to be long-lasting. The Vera report found that wages for men who have been incarcerated are on average 40% lower than those of people who have never been to jail by age 45.

9. Also, jails cost you — the taxpayer — a ton of money.

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Even if you've never been to jail, the fact that so many people have is probably affecting you. Vera found that the cost of operating jails in America increased 235% between 1982 and 2013.

Today, some $22 billion are spent every year in local detention facilities. To put that into perspective, that money could have bought you Twitter's entire public offering — with enough money left to equal the GDP of the Bahamas.

But that figure doesn't tell the whole story, according to Vera. Sending people to jail means lost wages, increased health care expenses for current and former inmates, and a terrible loss of human potential.

"Ultimately, these consequences are corrosive and costly for everyone because no matter how disadvantaged people are when they enter jail, they are likely to emerge with their lives further destabilized and, therefore, less able to be healthy, contributing members of society," the authors of the report wrote.

10. Bottom line: Even if you are released quickly, a short stay in jail can really mess up your life.

Getty Images Andrew Burton

The average stay in jail across the United States is currently 23 days, which may not seem like much. But the main takeaway from the Vera report is that going to jail, even for a little while, can really hurt your chances at a decent life.

By making you poorer, hurting your chances at getting a job, and making it more likely that you will end up in prison, jail actually makes it more rather than less likely you will break the law again.

"Jail is a gateway to deeper and more serious involvement in the criminal justice system, at considerable cost to the people involved and society at large," the report's authors wrote.

11. Fortunately, there might be some reason to hope.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

The MacArthur Foundation — the guys who give out "genius grants" to thinkers and artists — has teamed up with Vera to help local governments that want to fix their jails.

On Wednesday, the foundation announced that it will start a $75 million fund to give grants to municipalities that come up with creative ways to reduce their jail population.

The initiative, called the Safety and Justice Challenge, will not try to steer the conversation one way or another, but let cities come up with their own ideas.

Jails in the United States register about 12 million admissions per year. A previous version of this article erroneously suggested that this means 12 million people go to jail every year, but the fact is that people are often admitted to jail more than once.

The title of the report cited in the graphic for item 7 on this list is "Investigating the Impact of Pretrial Detention on Sentencing Outcomes." An earlier version of the Vera report provided to BuzzFeed News misstated the title of the study.



A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.