What causes jail overcrowding?
The purpose of most criminal justice system studies is to identify how to reduce jail overcrowding. There
are two conditions that affect overcrowding: (1) The number of people brought to jail and (2) their length of stay.
The number of people brought to jail is affected by use of alternatives to incarceration, as well as by the growth of crime.
For example, not all persons apprehended for low level offenses need to be booked into jail, some can be given a field citation or
notice to appear. However, apprehension policies differ from county to county and within law enforcement agencies of a single
county. Unbridled attitudes about the use of jail, also can be found in prosecutor's offices, courts, and probation departments.
Comparison of those agencies across the country shows great disparity in attitudes and practices. Of course, as county
populations grow, even highly efficient criminal justice systems will experience the need to expand jail capacity. The
goal is to avoid building costly jail space earlier than needed and with greater capacity than required.
The second condition,
length of stay, is especially susceptible to bloating at many stages in the criminal justice system. Since
the majority of jail inmates (often as high as 80% of the jail population) is unsentenced, the length of stay is affected by
the speed with which cases are processed. Ways to make major improvements in case processing, without adding more
staff, are possible in most criminal justice systems and without great cost. (Additional information is provided inJail Bloating: A Common But Unnecessary Cause of Jail Overcrowding.)
Why consider a criminal justice system study?
often a quick reduction in the jail population can be obtained. That equates to dollars saved in construction costs. Many
times, but not all, the need to immediately plan a new facility can be delayed. This is generally the case if the need for additional
jail space has recently arisen. Also, a criminal justice system study cannot offset the need to replace worn-out facilities.
However, the astute county commissioner should keep in mind that "you cannot build your way out of an overcrowding problem." The development
of an inmate growth management plan should be developed to accompany construction of jails in medium and large counties.
in mind that the simple practice of projecting future jail needs from historic data will perpetuate jail bloating.
If past data were the products of bloating, then the projection of future needs from those data, will overestimate the true needs
of a jail in a more efficient system.