NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


December 7, 2005

Oregon and at least half a dozen other states have long grappled with overcrowding by trying to find money for new facilities and stuffing more prisoners into existing cells. More recently, some have turned to a last-ditch solution: opening the doors and letting inmates go.

The brunt of such decisions often falls on sheriffs at local jails. Traditionally holding pens for minor offenders or suspects awaiting trial, jails are increasingly accepting surplus inmates from state prisons:

  • Of the 2.2 million people incarcerated in 2004, 713,990 were in local jails, up from 486,474 in 1994.
  • The number of violent criminals in local jails has risen even faster, more than doubling over a decade to 160,300 in 2002.
  • Jail-related costs for local governments totaled $16.7 billion in 2001, the last year for which figures are available, up from $3 billion in 1982.

One reason local jails have more violent offenders is the overflow from state prisons. By the 1990s every state had some form of mandatory minimum sentencing or truth-in-sentencing provisions that helped increase the inmate population. Perhaps the best-known was California's "three strikes" law, enacted in 1994, which allowed the state to sentence three-time felons to life in prison regardless of the seriousness of the crime.

Ultimately the issue has its roots in the contradictory impulses of state voters, who want to put more criminals behind bars but are reluctant to pay higher taxes to build and operate prisons and jails. Advocates of tougher laws say there is little arguing with their success: Violent-crime rates in 2004 were at their lowest rate since the U.S. Justice Department began collecting the data in 1973.

Source: Gary Fields, "Freedom Walk: With Jails Bulging, Some Sheriffs Let Inmates Go Early," Wall Street Journal, December 5, 2005.

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