Where Have the Inmates Gone?

Large city or county jails are notoriously difficult places to manage. When I was with the Maryland Department of Public Safety as Director of Public Information, we took over the Baltimore City Jail to relieve the city of the fiscal burden.

We immediately found close to 100 inmates who were held beyond their legal time. They were dubbed the “lost Inmates” by national and international media. It may have been the biggest story in my thirty-five-year media relations career.

I spent a lot of time in the facility to get a sense of what we were in for and immediately came to the conclusion that law enforcement and prisons were a piece of cake compared to the insanely chaotic environments of jails.

We also ran a state of the art booking center where we processed those arrested via computerized fingerprints thus tying them into warrants and unsolved crimes which lead to massive overcrowding during a time when the Baltimore City Police were dramatically increasing arrests.

Most offenders were under the influence of drugs or alcohol upon arrest and many had mental health issues. Considering everything we were dealing with, there was organized chaos where on the vast majority of days, things ran somewhat smoothly.

It takes an immense amount of skill to keep endless variables (i.e., medical, psychological, court, warrants, security, admission and releases) in order and operating somewhat smoothly. I grew to admire the correctional administrators and officers for getting it right the vast majority of times.

This article is based on a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the US Department of Justice; the 30th in a series of reports on jail inmates that began in 1982, and presents data from BJS’s Annual Survey of Jails (ASJ) on inmates confined in local jails between 2000 and 2016.

Major Findings

There are decreases in the numbers of people processed by jails that is probably an indication as to less crime reported, Crime in America, and fewer arrests, Crime in America.

In 2016, there were 229 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents, dropping from a peak of 259 per 100,000 at midyear 2007.

Similarly, the number of jail admissions declined in recent years, down from a peak of 13.6 million in 2008 to 10.6 million in 2016; that’s a drop of three million people.

The number of admissions was 14.5 times the size of the average daily population (ADP) in 2016, which was 731,300 inmates. It doesn’t include the number of people processed for arrests for jails with booking centers.

There are also significantly different demographics as to who goes to jail.

The majority of jail inmates at year-end 2016 were male (85%) and age 18 or older (99%). The percentage of female inmates increased from 2000 (11%) to 2016 (15%).

About half (48%) of the jail population was white, up from 42% in 2000. In comparison, the percentage of black inmates declined from 41% in 2000 to 34% in 2016.

The Report

Findings include data on jail incarceration rates, inmate characteristics, admissions, jail capacity, and turnover rates.

The jail incarceration rate fell from 237 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents at midyear 2012 to 229 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents at midyear 2016, a decline of 3.4 percent.

The incarceration rate fell 11.2 percent from midyear 2008, when there were 258 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents, to midyear 2016.

The percentage of U.S. residents who were in jail dropped from midyear (the last weekday in June) 2012 to midyear 2016. Jails include confinement facilities operated under the authority of a sheriff, police chief or city or county administrator.

County and city jails held 740,700 inmates at midyear 2016. This was below the peak of 785,500 inmates in 2008, the year with the most jail inmates since 1982, when BJS began the Annual Survey of Jails data collection.

In 2016, jails reported 10.6 million admissions, continuing a steady decline since 2008, when there were 13.6 million admissions to local jails.

On average, those admitted to jail in 2016 stayed 25 days. Admissions include all persons booked into a jail on a formal charge, repeat offenders booked on new charges, and persons sentenced to weekend programs and entering the facility for the first time.

On December 31, 2016 (year-end), most (65 percent) people held in jail were not convicted of an offense but were awaiting court action on a current charge.

The remaining 35 percent were sentenced offenders or convicted offenders awaiting sentencing. Nearly 7 in 10 inmates were held in jail on felony charges, while 1 in 4 were held for misdemeanor offenses.

The rate at which people were held in local jails (the incarceration rate) varied widely by racial and ethnic groups. At year-end 2016, non-Hispanic blacks (599 per 100,000 black U.S. residents) had the highest jail incarceration rate, followed by American Indian or Alaska Natives (359 per 100,000 AIAN residents).

Hispanics (185 per 100,000 Hispanic residents) and non-Hispanic whites (171 per 100,000 white residents) were incarcerated in jails at a similar rate at year-end 2016. Blacks were incarcerated in jail at a rate 3.5 times that of whites at year-end 2016. This was down from 5.6 times the rate in 2000.

Jails employed 226,300 full-time staff at year-end 2016, an increase from 213,000 at year-end 2015. Nearly 8 in 10 jail employees were correctional officers, including deputies, monitors and other custody staff who spend more than half of their time with the incarcerated population. In 2016, the inmate-to-correctional officer ratio was 4 to 1.

The rated capacity of jails to hold inmates continued to increase, reaching 915,400 beds at year-end 2016. The rated capacity is the maximum number of beds or inmates assigned to a jail by a rating official. Eighty percent of jail beds were occupied in 2016, a decline from 95 percent in 2007, as jail capacity grew while the inmate population declined. An estimated 17 percent of all jail jurisdictions were operating at or above 100 percent of their rated capacity in 2016.


Bureau of Justice Statistics

Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. – Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Post-Masters’ Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University.