With many places facing large backlogs of court cases because of COVID-related shutdowns, counties are taking a new look at ways to manage jail populations, says the Pew Public Safety Performance Project. Although much of the focus has been on reducing admissions, the average amount of time that people spend in jail has been steadily increasing over the past decade. National data for 2020 shows a six percent jump in average length of stay over the previous year. A report by the Data Collaborative for Justice at John Jay College, in partnership with The Pew Charitable Trusts, cites the need for a more comprehensive approach to reducing jail populations that takes into account both how many people are admitted and how long they stay.
The report reviews detailed data from three county jails and finds that average length of stay over the study period increased 18 percent in Louisville-Jefferson County, Ky., 20 percent in St. Louis County, Missouri; and 24 percent in Durham County, N.C., despite significant declines in admissions. The longer stays were primarily driven by people whose bail had been set at more than $5,000 and people held on more serious charges. Although they made up fewer than one in four admissions in 2019, people with these high bail amounts in all three counties occupied more than two in three jail beds. In 2019, those admitted to the three county facilities for a violent felony charge spent, on average, more than 100 days in jail, compared with fewer than 40 days for a nonviolent felony and fewer than nine days for a misdemeanor. In all three counties, 40 percent or more of those released from jail in the first year of the study were readmitted at least two times.