In a recent report – Broken Ground: Why America Keeps Building More Jails and What It Can Do Instead – completed by the Vera Institute of Justice, researchers selected a sample of 77 counties, including Coffee County, in 31 states to better understand the public arguments made in favor of jail expansion.
Researchers selected counties that considered jail expansion in the years between 2000 and 2019, and reviewed discussions of county boards and public meetings on the issue. Vera Institute of Justice also examined media reports, jail litigation cases, academic papers and government documents and studies.
According to the report, although jail expansion provides additional beds to house increasing numbers of inmates, it does not address the policies and practices that directly impact the number of people sent to jail and how long they stay, and that was the case in Coffee County.
Once Coffee County’s new 400-bed jail opened in 2015, the county probation department decided to resume filing probation violations—they had ceased when the old jail was full—causing an immediate influx of people being held on violations of their community supervision, according to the report.
Added capacity does little to alter the true drivers of jail population. In Coffee County, although the newly expanded jail was constructed to address severe overcrowding, three years after its completion the jail was on track for overcrowding again as the population had risen by more than 40% to 390 people. A number of different practices drove this growth, including an increase in the issuing of bench warrants for failure to appear, limited use of summons for misdemeanor arrests, and increased use of jail sentences instead of probation for certain crimes, according to the report.
The single largest part of the jail population – about 50% – was pretrial incarceration for misdemeanors.
Only once Coffee County began to make policy changes system-wide to reduce overcrowding in its jails—by increasing the frequency of hearings and reducing court delays—was it able to bring the jail population down to 320 people. The jail housed 328 inmates in October 2018, with 51% housed on pretrial misdemeanors, according to the Tennessee Department of Corrections.
Coffee County jail population in 2018 and 2019
In 2018, the Coffee County jail population often neared and exceeded 400 inmates. While the jail population saw a significant decrease in November of 2018 (337 inmates), it has again increased in recent months. According to the Tennessee Department of Corrections, the jail housed 382 inmates in September 2019, 378 inmates in October 2019, 348 inmates in November 2019.
The percentage of inmates on pretrial misdemeanors has decreased. In November 2019, 29% of the inmates in Coffee County were housed for pretrial misdemeanors. The state average for those incarcerated for pretrial misdemeanors was 18.2% in November 2019.
Researcher’s concluded that the increase of mass incarceration in communities across the nation was accompanied by a boom in jail construction, increasing the capacity of local governments to incarcerate hundreds of thousands more people. Nationwide, this growth continues, with thousands of new jail beds added each year, a major investment for local governments.
As jails grew more overcrowded, concerns about safety and conditions, especially in old or out-of-date facilities, have driven many counties to build larger jails.
The organizations that would benefit from jail expansion build support for these projects using the reasons that most resonate with the community, such as economic development, safety, better jail conditions, or substance use and mental health treatment.
In many counties, decision makers and the consultants they hire take for granted that a larger jail is needed, framing the debate as a question of how to use the larger jail, rather than considering whether a new jail is needed or how they can reduce the jail’s size.
That approach leads to higher costs. With a larger jail, county taxpayers would have to pay for a more expensive system to run.
Providing more jail beds does not address the underlying factors driving jail population growth. With these factors left unaddressed, the county risks an ever-increasing jail population.
Many counties try to build more jail beds and at the same time invest in policy change to reduce jail populations over time, but find that their motivation to do so is reduced with increased capacity that now exists.
Services in the jail rarely match the quality of services in the community, and even the most ambitious plans to improve health care through more jail beds often fall short, according to the report.
What model should be considered?
Some counties are renovating older facilities instead of building larger jails, maintaining smaller jail populations, instead of supporting proposals to build bigger. They are also looking for ways to invest in community-based treatment services, rather than locating such services within a jail expansion project. By pushing back against building bigger facilities, these counties can save money, hold fewer of their community members behind bars, and dedicate more resources to evidence-based practices to ensure community safety practices that more effectively, and that’s the model that all counties should consider.
The Vera Institute of Justice is an independent nonprofit national research and policy organization in the United States.