More than 400,000 people are locked up pretrial every single day in the US. According to the annual Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) report, the ‘pre-trial’ or ‘unconvicted’ population was ‘driving’ America’s addiction to mass incarceration. ‘In fact, 99% of the growth in jails over the last 15 years has been a result of increases in the pre-trial population,’ the group says.
Approximately 1.9m people are behind bars run the US population. The PPI points out that the US does not have a single ‘criminal justice system’; instead there are ‘thousands of federal, state, local, and tribal systems’. ‘Together, these systems hold almost 2 million people in 1,566 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,850 local jails, 1,510 juvenile correctional facilities, 186 immigration detention facilities, and 82 Indian country jails, as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.’
That total prison population has fallen by about 16% during the pandemic however that decline was driven by pandemic-induced ‘slowdowns’ in the criminal justice system rather than policies facilitating people leaving prison. ‘Even when the US prison population was at a historically low point in the pandemic, we were still locking up far more people per capita than any other country on earth,’ said Wendy Sawyer, the PPI’s research director. ‘It’s important for people to understand that the temporary population drops during the pandemic were due to COVID jamming the gears of the criminal justice system — not because of any coordinated actions to reform the system.’
Black people are still overrepresented behind bars, making up about 40% of the prison and jail population. PPI highlighted the ‘enormous churn’ in and out of correctional facilities. ‘In a typical year, about 600,000 people enter prison gates, but people go to jail over 10 million times each year,’ the report says. Jail churn is particularly high because most people in jails have not been convicted, the report says. ‘Some have just been arrested and will make bail within hours or days, while many others are too poor to make bail and remain behind bars until their trial,’ the PPI says.