Crime Coverage Highlights: Jail Data Initiative


By Erika Filter
National Press Foundation

For the roughly 3,000 jails nationwide, the data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics is outdated and spotty. “There’s limited information that they release on the people who are in jail via demographics,” said Tracy Velázquez, senior manager of Safety & Justice research at Pew Charitable Trusts. “For example, there’s no information on admissions by race or ethnicity at all.”

It’s also limited to about one-third of the nation’s jails. “What many people don’t realize is, though it’s supposedly an annual report of jails, it’s still only a sample of about 900 jails in five years out of six,” Velázquez said.

Enter the Jail Data Initiative, which has worked to aggregate nationwide jail data daily and re-insert demographic data. “This is important because we’re seeing very different trends in some of these when you break it down by both race and sex in the jail populations,” Velázquez said.

Information from more than 1,300 counties is currently available.

The Jail Data Initiative is partly funded by Pew Charitable Trusts and started by the NYU Public Safety Lab in 2019.

Note, of course, that jail and prison cannot be used interchangeably. Jail is defined as a local correctional facility, which generally houses individuals who have not been convicted (i.e. people incarcerated pretrial), those with sentences of 1 year or less, those waiting to be transferred to other facilities including prisons or mental health facilities, and/or those with community supervision or bail violations.

Although the population in jails has slightly decreased, there are still about 100,000 people in jails that are over 100% capacity. “About 15 percent of jails in this country are overcrowded at any given time,” Velázquez said.

More Black Americans Jailed

In “almost 100 percent” of the jails in the Jail Data Initiative, people of color and especially Black Americans were overrepresented. Velázquez said in about a third of the jails, African Americans were slightly overrepresented or had double the percentage of the jail population as they did in the county population. However, in 29% of the counties, the percentage of the jail population was “over four times” the percentage of African Americans in the county.

The population of Black Americans in jails is increasing. Velázquez said it is now 8% higher than it was before the pandemic, whereas the population of white Americans in jails has stayed “approximately the same,” increasing by less than half a percent from pre-pandemic levels. “In 2022, the admission rate for Black people was four times that for white people,” Velázquez said.

The Jail Data Initiative allows users to filter by length of stay, the ratio of releases to admissions, age, location and other factors. Velázquez said jails operate cyclically, so data analysts should look at the same date range on each year they are analyzing.

“One of the other things we’re able to look at is the number of times that people go to jail,” Velázquez said. “You’ve got 10 million admissions, but that’s not 10 million people.” She said people with mental health and substance use problems often go to jail multiple times. “Jails probably aren’t the right place for them. … They’re probably the place of last resort.”

If data isn’t available for a certain county, ask for it directly. “They all have it,” Velazquez said. “I think it’s worth outreaching to them and letting them know that [the Jail Data Initiative] exists and saying you’d like to see their data up here, too.”

Crime Coverage Summit 2023: Beyond ‘If It Bleeds, It Leads’ was sponsored by Arnold Ventures and hosted by NPF and RTDNA. This content originally appeared on the National Press Foundation’s website. You can view more of their content here.