Chris Mai is a research associate in the Vera Institute of Justice’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections
In 2015, after nearly a decade of jail overcrowding, rural Coffee County, Tennessee, completed a brand new 400-bed jail—a facility more than twice the size of its predecessor. The jail population then skyrocketed, increasing more than 60 percent between April 2015 and April 2018 and even briefly surpassing the new jail’s capacity. While the number of people jailed had dipped slightly by September 2019, the Coffee County story is still one of increased incarceration.
The project cost a whopping $21 million to complete, a figure that does not include the cost of maintaining or staffing the new facility. And, more than half of the people in the new jail haven’t been convicted: They are being held before trial and most only face misdemeanor charges, but are likely simply too poor to afford bail in a community where 14 percent of residents live below the poverty line.
Local news also reported that the county probation department had resumed jailing people who hadn’t necessarily committed new crimes, but had violated the terms of their probation, a practice they’d put on pause when the old jail was full.
Coffee County’s story illuminates a troubling national phenomenon highlighted in our new report: As major cities decarcerate and close jails, smaller cities and rural communities are incarcerating people at higher and higher rates and investing heavily in jail expansion. Amid a decades-long decline in crime, this has created an uneven experience of incarceration across the urban-to-rural spectrum. There is an excess of empty beds in a small handful of places, with shocking overcrowding elsewhere. In 2017, there were far more jail beds available nationwide than people held in jail, yet one in five jails had a population at or above 100 percent of its rated capacity.
For many counties, the issues posed by overcrowding, coupled with concerns about jail safety and conditions, especially in old or out-of-date facilities, have not brought about a reckoning with the human or fiscal cost of incarceration. Instead, many counties are choosing to respond to the liabilities and concerns created by overflowing jails by investing limited local dollars in expanded correctional control and justifying the additional spending on larger jails by framing incarceration as a solution, rather than a problem.
Our nation’s jails often warehouse people with mental health and substance-use issues—a situation that is particularly pronounced in areas where little community-based care is available, and where both opiate and methamphetamine use is on the rise. Expansion and jail-based responses are increasingly packaged and publicly promoted as a “solution” for people who are poor, sick, and struggling; and posited as a rationale for new investment. To further underscore this logic, new facilities are branded as “justice campuses” or a “law centers,” obscuring the building’s principal function: to incarcerate.
But community-based treatment is generally more effective than jail-based responses and jail construction often consumes most or all of the finite resources needed to invest in health and resilience in the community, investments that might help prevent incarceration in the first place. What’s more, many jail facilities fail to provide minimal health care, often struggling to offer even the most basic medication or treatment to incarcerated people. And even well-intentioned correctional efforts are still correctional efforts: Confinement in a facility for which the primary aim remains control, surveillance, and punishment is antithetical to treatment goals.
Ultimately, counties cannot build their way out of crisis. Jail expansion alone fails to address the root causes of incarceration and overcrowding, leaving in place the very policies and practices that drove the jail’s population increase in the first place. Indeed, a larger jail with more beds may reduce the incentive to make policy changes that address the factors driving overcrowding due to the temporary relief expansion provides. Jail population growth and increasing capacity can create a vicious cycle, resulting in an ever-increasing number of people in jail.
Even in the midst of a jail construction boom, it would be a mistake to think that this reflects a deep American commitment to incarceration. On the contrary, a growing number of county leaders and local voters view jail construction with growing suspicion. In a 2018 poll commissioned by the Vera Institute of Justice, 67 percent of respondents agreed that “building more jails and prisons to keep more people in jail does not reduce crime,” and 61 percent felt that “the money spent on building prisons and jails can be better spent on other things.”
On election day in 2019, voters in Arapahoe County, Colorado—a suburb of Denver—brought these sentiments to the voting booth and overwhelmingly rejected a ballot issue that would have raised taxes to pay for an estimated $400 million jail. While the cost alone was staggering, the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition also articulated a hunger from the community for a more expansive set of solutions to overcrowding. Other communities have shown that this is possible. Rather than building new, larger jails, some counties are ambitiously reducing wealth-based detention and the criminalization of poverty, renovating older facilities, and rejecting needlessly carceral “solutions.” This work embodies a commitment to redefining and reinvesting in true community safety and shows that mass incarceration is not any community’s destiny.