COLUMBUS, Ohio - Across America, the population in local and regional jails has tripled over the last 40 years. New research suggests over the last 20 years, that growth is primarily attributed to people who have not been convicted of any crime.
The Prison Policy Initiative examined U.S. Justice Department and past census data from the 1980s through 2016. Wanda Bertram, communications strategist with the initiative, said they found pre-trial detention is a major factor, as many detainees either can't afford their bail or judges won't release them on personal recognizance.
"The pre-trial population, which is much bigger than it was 10 or 20 years ago, is primarily what's driving crowding in local jails," Bertram said. "These are people that have not yet been convicted of a crime, but are being held before their trial."
Bertram said many people with addictions or mental illness end up in jails simply because the community lacks other good options.
She said overcrowding is an expensive problem for local governments. Recently in Ohio, the Portage County Jail was so far over capacity, it ran out of mattresses in the general population unit.
Bertram contended reducing the root causes of incarceration is a smart approach to reducing jail overcrowding. She said the kinds of factors that help keep people out of the criminal justice system - family support, a job, substance abuse or mental health treatment - are all interrupted when someone is locked up.
"[It's] Taking people that are already suffering from a lack of services, and doubling down on their pain," she said. "For the most part, people that are released pre-trial do show up for court. And when they don't show up, it's because of the same reason that, you know, you might miss the bus - your boss kept you late, you couldn't get time off work, you had a child care issue, or you just forgot."
An ACLU report relseased earlier this year found Ohio's prison system is overcrowded by about 11,000 people. And, it noted while some penalties have been reduced to prevent people charged with low-level offenses from being locked up, state lawmakers are still passing bills that would send more people to jail or prison.
This story was produced in association with Media in the Public Interest and funded in part by the George Gund Foundation.