While much of the public debate and academic discourse focuses on the challenges of reducing federal and state prison enrollments, mass incarceration is a problem with a significant local dimension too. As of June 30, 2013, an estimated 731,208 persons in the U.S. were confined in local jails; a much larger total of 11.7 million persons were imprisoned in local jails at some point over the preceding year. More than 6 out of 10 of those jailed in the U.S. have yet to be convicted of any crime. Indeed, many of those held in pretrial detention are actually eligible for release yet they cannot afford to post bail – often nominal amounts of money. And contrary to popular thinking, the overwhelming majority of criminal prosecutions concern relatively minor offenses. In New York City, three out of four cases that make it to criminal court are misdemeanors – a total of more than 235,000 cases in 2012.
Any time spent behind bars is harmful to individuals, families, and communities. In many cases, the use of jail makes society less safe: studies have consistently found that incarceration does not deter re-offending, with some research indicating that it actually increases the odds of recidivism. Further, while most people tend to be released after relatively short sentences, the consequences of incarceration are lasting and damaging. The fact is we could divert a significant percentage of the American jail population without appreciably increasing risk to public safety. Alternatives to detention and incarceration will improve the life trajectories of people living in poverty.