Insights From Jail Population Numbers

Posted on May 11, 2012 by


First, a quick primer on the difference between jails and prisons. Jails are short-term correctional facilities and pretrial detention. Jail holds those who have been convicted, will be convicted, and will be acquitted. It holds those who have been arrested but not arraigned, it holds those who pose a danger to others.

Prisons, on the other hand, are for offenders who have already been tried and sentenced. The inmates in prisons are there for a much longer stay. A sentence of more than a year usually lands a convict in prison where there are (supposed to be) greater treatment services and the facilities are set up to handle the long-term demands of a captive population. Prisons are generally more stable and safer than jails, despite the fact that they hold offenders convicted of more serious crimes.

The figures in this post come from the recently released Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) report titled “Jail Inmates At Midyear 2011 – Statistical Tables.” I know, it sounds dreadfully boring.

But with a little color and imagination (yeah, that’s right BJS, we’re calling you out for mind-numbingly awful presentation), you can see some interesting stuff. Take a look at that top chart. While the males had a pretty steady trajectory that peaked in 2008 and declined thereafter, the females have a different story to tell. Female jail inmate numbers peaked earlier, in 2007, and then dropped suddenly in 2009 but with some fluctuation afterward. I like to separate crime data by sex – lumping males and females together always obscures what’s going on with women because the overall criminality of males is so much higher.

Next, juveniles.

These numbers don’t at all follow those of adults. Explanation? I dunno. A lot goes into this, including public perception of juveniles and crime, public policy, and high profile crimes. Because the numbers are much smaller than those of adults, they can be affected by just one or two larger jurisdictions that suddenly decide to increase their arrests of juveniles, possibly through initiatives like targeting gangs, underage drinking, and youth drug use.

The real story overall, though is in this final chart.

Looking at raw numbers in crime statistics over time is always folly. Raw numbers fail to account for population changes, and trust me, that’s really important. These numbers show the real trend data in jail populations, though, of course, the extreme disproportion of adult males obscures what’s happening with females and juvenile populations.

Just by way of comparison, we have more people (proportionately) in jail than Canada holds in both jail and prison combined.

Interesting, eh?

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Posted in: Corrections