We Lock Up Tons of Innocent People—and Charge Them for the Privilege

By:  AJ Vicens

The United States has a prison problem. We have just 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its prisoners. Even though our imprisonment rate has grown more than 400 percent since 1970, locking people up has not proved to be a deterrent.

The prison problem also extends to jails, which hold defendants awaiting trial and prisoners sentenced for minor offenses. A new report from the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit focused on justice policy, reports that America's local jails, which hold roughly 731,000 people on any given day, are holding more people even though the crime rate is going down. Jails disproportionately detain people of color longer and for lesser crimes. The report also finds that jails are less likely to give inmates the rehabilitation and mental-health support that could keep them out of prison.

"I observe injustice routinely. Nonetheless even I—as this report came together—was jolted by the extent to which unconvicted people in this country are held in jail simply because they are too poor to pay what it costs to get out," writes Vera president and director Nicholas Turner. He described poor detention practices in which the mentally ill, homeless, and substance abusers are routinely jailed for bad behavior and described the practice as "destructive to individuals, their families, and entire communities."

The 46-page report paints a devastating portrait of American jails. Here are a few quick takeaways:

1. The number of people going to jail is going up while crime rates are falling: In 1983, roughly 6 million people were admitted to a local jail. That number grew to roughly 11.7 million in 2013. Meanwhile, crime rates have been dropping. See Vera's chart:

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