Why do some places incarcerate people at much higher rates than others? We considered this question in 2019, when we compared prison incarceration rates across U.S. counties, finding a wide range that loosely correlated to the respective state imprisonment rates. Now, we can do the same for jail incarceration rates. While it’s difficult to find jail incarceration data at the city level, this data is available by county in the Vera Institute of Justice’s Incarceration Trends Database. Using this database, we considered 63 highly populated cities, and calculated the overall jail incarceration rate and pretrial detention rate of each city’s surrounding county. We found that, like prison incarceration rates, jail detention rates vary significantly. But unlike our study of prison incarceration rates, we could find no obvious explanation: neither violent crime rates, local police budgets, nor local jail budgets explained the large differences from city to city. These variations mean that your chances of being put in jail can depend on something as arbitrary as the city you live in.

Jail and pretrial detention rates are important for showing just how deeply mass incarceration is affecting your local community. Jails are the “front door” of the criminal justice system. In 2019 alone, there were more than 10.3 million admissions into U.S. jails. Black and low-income people are disproportionately affected by repeat arrests, and are more likely to be held pretrial simply because they cannot afford bail, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and incarceration. Even short stays in jail can have a major impact on people’s livelihoods, threatening their ability to keep their jobs and housing, and straining familial relationships. This harm is unnecessary, though; as our research has shown, reforms that allow more people to return home pretrial were not associated with rising crime rates in the states, cities, and counties we analyzed.

Read the full article about jail incarceration rates by Tiana Herring at Prison Policy Initiative.