County Jail

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State Prisoners in County Jails

February 2010

State Prisoners in County Jails

A Publication of the Research Division of NACo’s County Services Department Written by Brian Albert Research Intern February 2010

National Association of Counties


About the National Association of Counties
The National Association of Counties (NACo) is the only national organization that represents county governments in the United States. Founded in 1935, NACo provides essential services to the nation’s 3,068 counties. NACo advances issues with a unified voice before the federal government, improves the public’s understanding of county government, assists counties in finding and sharing innovative solutions through education and research, and provides value-added services to save counties and taxpayers money. For more information about NACo, visit

For more information about this publication or the programs included, please contact: National Association of Counties Research Division a Phone: 202.393-6226

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State Prisioners in County Jails • February 2010

Although the terms “jail” and “prison” are often used interchangeably, there is an important difference between the two. The variation in the roles of jails and prisons is capability level of operation. Prisons are built to hold more dangerous criminal offenders and to carry out rehabilitative programming at the state level. Prisoners are meant to be long-term residents. Conversely, a jail’s original purpose is to receive and hold individuals pending trial, conviction, or sentencing at the county level. They hold those who are awaiting pick-up from other sources (i.e., parole violators to be picked up by the state, mentally ill waiting to move to health facilities, etc.). They provide protective custody for those in contempt of court and for court witnesses. They are final points for inmates sentenced to short terms (less than one year), and jails provide temporary housing for state prisoners when state facilities are overcrowded. The main difference is that prisons are for longterm incarceration and generally operated by the state; jails are for short-term holdings and operated at the county level. But as the inmate population has soared in recent years—having climbed to nearly 2.4 million residents by

2009—the function of the jail is rapidly changing. Instead of being able to cast off inmates to other sources, counties are finding that there is nowhere for these inmates to go. This has resulted in a number of consequences. One, jails are now near, at, or over-capacity. Two, jails have had to fulfill the role of the state prison in rehabilitative methods. More and more jails are providing vocation and educational programming, psychiatric treatment, community programs, drug treatment, and alternative methods of sentencing. Of course, it is rare that a county jail will get funding for these efforts. Convictions are increasing. Citizens and politicians demand a “getting tough on crime” approach, but do not take into account the resources needed to make that happen. One result is the turning away of some prisoners, or the release of others. This might have disastrous consequences in the future. As of June 2008, county jails were rated at 95% capacity. But for jails with an average daily population of at least 1,000 inmates, the capacity was 103%, as opposed to a capacity of 68% of those jails with an average daily population of 50 inmates or less. Prisons are operating at anywhere from 101-117% capacity.

National Association of Counties


Causes of Higher Prison and Jail Populations
Stricter Sentencing of Drug Offenses
In 2008, approximately seven out of ten local jail inmates were either regular drug users or had committed a drug offense. About 16% had committed their offense in order to get money to buy drugs. Over 25% had previous drug convictions. Drug offenders accounted for 19% of the...
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