What causes jail overcrowding?
The purpose of most criminal justice system studies is to identify how to reduce jail overcrowding. There
are two conditions that affect overcrowding: (1) The number of people brought to jail and (2) their length of stay.
The number of people brought to jail is affected by use of
alternatives to incarceration, as well as by the growth of crime. For
example, not all persons apprehended for low level offenses need to be
booked into jail, some can be given a field citation or notice to
appear. However, apprehension policies differ from county to
county and within law enforcement agencies of a single county.
Unbridled attitudes about the use of jail, also can be found
in prosecutor's offices, courts, and probation departments.
Comparison of those agencies across the country shows great
disparity in attitudes and practices. Of course, as county
populations grow, even highly efficient criminal justice systems will
experience the need to expand jail capacity. The goal is to
avoid building costly jail space earlier than needed and with greater
capacity than required.
second condition, length of stay, is
especially susceptible to bloating at many stages in the
criminal justice system. Since the majority of jail inmates
(often as high as 80% of the jail population) is unsentenced, the
length of stay is affected by the speed with which cases are
processed. Ways to make major improvements in case
processing, without adding more staff, are possible in most
criminal justice systems and without great cost. (Additional
information is provided inJail Bloating: A Common But Unnecessary Cause of Jail Overcrowding.)
Why consider a criminal justice system study?
often a quick reduction in the jail population can be
obtained. That equates to dollars saved in construction
costs. Many times, but not all, the need to immediately plan a new
facility can be delayed. This is generally the case if the need
for additional jail space has recently arisen. Also, a
criminal justice system study cannot offset the need to replace
worn-out facilities. However, the astute county commissioner
should keep in mind that "you cannot build your way out of an
overcrowding problem." The development of an inmate growth management
plan should be developed to accompany construction of jails in medium
and large counties.
in mind that the simple practice of projecting future jail
needs from historic data only looks at the past, as if you were driving
down the road looking in the rearview mirror. You are likely to
overlook many important issues, such as how to reduce the demand for
jail beds and emerging new trends.