Large Cities Drive Nationwide Jail Population Decline; Jails in Most Rural Counties Still Growing

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Large Cities Drive Nationwide Jail Population Decline Jails In Most Rural Counties Still Growing

The source of this data, the Annual Survey of Jails (ASJ), does not cover every jail in the United States. Its main purpose is to estimate the national jail population. The survey covers all large jails, but only a sample of smaller jails. For example, though rural counties have the highest incarceration rates, the ASJ collects data in only 14 percent of rural counties. So while the rural jails that participated in the 2015 survey experienced sharp increases, the ASJ does not provide a tally of the jail population change in all 2,000 rural counties. 

The overall picture painted by the 2015 jails data is one of tremendous declines in large, urban jurisdictions being eroded by sharp increases in jail populations in a large proportion of suburban, small and midsized, and rural counties. In urban areas such as Chicago and Los Angeles, significant reforms are under way through national initiatives like the Safety and Justice Challenge. Change is also occurring at the local and state levels—like bail reform in New Jersey and the move to close Rikers Island in New York City. But smaller and more rural counties continue to lag behind. In order to bring these counties further into the fold of reform, governments and their partners can use the available data to examine what’s happening in their communities, contribute to filling the gaps in data and knowledge and, ultimately, initiate plans for change.