One out of every three people behind bars is being held in a local jail, yet jails get almost none of the attention that prisons do. Jails are ostensibly locally controlled, but the people held there are generally accused of violating state law, and all too often state policymakers (and state reform advocates) ignore jails. In terms of raw numbers state prison reform is the larger prize, but embracing the myth that jails are only a local matter undermines current and future state-level reforms. Jails may be locally controlled, but jail practices reflect state priorities and change state-wide outcomes.
The 11 million people who go to jail each year are there generally for brief, but life-altering, periods of time. Most are released in days or hours after their arrest, but others are held for months or more, often because they are too poor to make bail. Only about a third of the 720,000 people in jails on a given day have been convicted and are serving short sentences, typically under a year and most often for misdemeanors. Jail policy is therefore in large part about how people — who are legally innocent, until proven guilty — are treated and about how policymakers think our criminal justice system should respond to low-level offenses. As this report will explain, jails impact our entire criminal justice system and millions of lives every year.