Why do some places incarcerate people at much higher rates than others? We considered this question in 2019, when we compared prison incarceration rates across U.S. counties, finding a wide range that loosely correlated to the respective state imprisonment rates.

Now, we can do the same for jail incarceration rates. While it’s difficult to find jail incarceration data at the city level, this data is available by county in the Vera Institute of Justice’s Incarceration Trends Database. Using this database, we considered 63 highly populated cities,1 and calculated the overall jail incarceration rate and pretrial detention rate of each city’s surrounding county.2 We found that, like prison incarceration rates, jail detention rates vary significantly. But unlike our study of prison incarceration rates, we could find no obvious explanation: neither violent crime rates, local police budgets, nor local jail budgets explained the large differences from city to city. These variations mean that that your chances of being put in jail can depend on something as arbitrary as the city you live in.

Jail and pretrial detention rates are important for showing just how deeply mass incarceration is affecting your local community. Jails are the “front door” of the criminal justice system. In 2019 alone, there were more than 10.3 million admissions into U.S. jails. Black and low-income people are disproportionately affected by repeat arrests, and are more likely to be held pretrial simply because they cannot afford bail, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and incarceration. Even short stays in jail can have a major impact on people’s livelihoods, threatening their ability to keep their jobs and housing, and straining familial relationships. This harm is unnecessary, though; as our research has shown, reforms that allow more people to return home pretrial were not associated with rising crime rates in the states, cities, and counties we analyzed.

Rates are per 100,000 county residents. In its database, the Vera Institute presents rates for counties per 100,000 residents aged 15-64. For our analysis, we recalculated the rates using the counties’ total populations, using population counts from the Vera Institute’s downloadable dataset, to make the figures comparable to other criminal justice data. The data exclude people held in jails on behalf of federal authorities, such as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Marshals Service.
CityStateCountyJail detention rate (per 100,000 county residents)Pretrial detention rate (per 100,000 county residents)
MemphisTenn.Shelby County491245
New OrleansLa.Orleans Parish397301
St. LouisMo.None393395
PhiladelphiaPa.Philadelphia County389257
NashvilleTenn.Davidson County361191
BaltimoreMd.None331330
Virginia BeachVa.None328148
LouisvilleKy.Jefferson County308171
FresnoCalif.Fresno County305221
JacksonvilleFla.Duval County297119
DenverColo.Denver County295205
Washington, D.C.D.C.None294158
CharlestonS.C.Charleston County286229
AtlantaGa.Fulton County279198
Colorado SpringsColo.El Paso County279111
El PasoTexasEl Paso County277177
Little RockArk.Pulaski County272203
NewarkN.J.Essex County262242
JacksonMiss.Hinds County259252
CharlestonW. Va.Kanawha County254193
Las VegasNev.Clark County251132
IndianapolisInd.Marion County249189
BirminghamAla.Jefferson County249179
TulsaOkla.Tulsa County248172
BillingsMont.Yellowstone County246224
Oklahoma CityOkla.Oklahoma County243173
MilwaukeeWis.Milwaukee County240126
SacramentoCalif.Sacramento County235116
BoiseIdahoAda County232205
WichitaKan.Sedgwick County230171
OmahaNeb.Douglas County225204
CheyenneWyo.Laramie County223201
TampaFla.Hillsborough County211145
Salt Lake CityUtahSalt Lake County208191
Des MoinesIowaPolk County206174
BostonMass.Suffolk County201118
DallasTexasDallas County198152
AustinTexasTravis County195143
San AntonioTexasBexar County195184
HoustonTexasHarris County185141
AlbuquerqueN.M.Bernalillo County179187
TucsonAriz.Pima County178147
San DiegoCalif.San Diego County17682
Sioux FallsS.D.Minnehaha County174174
San JoseCalif.Santa Clara County172127
PhoenixAriz.Maricopa County171131
Los AngelesCalif.Los Angeles County170105
ColumbusOhioFranklin County169133
Fort WorthTexasTarrant County168121
FargoN.D.Cass County154155
PortlandMaineCumberland County15490
MiamiFla.Miami-Dade County149112
CharlotteN.C.Mecklenburg County143125
San FranciscoCalif.San Francisco County143118
Kansas CityMo.Jackson County140120
SeattleWash.King County137107
PortlandOre.Multnomah County134106
ChicagoIll.Cook County126113
RaleighN.C.Wake County111101
DetroitMich.Wayne County10764
ManchesterN.H.Hillsborough County10053
MinneapolisMinn.Hennepin County9962
New YorkN.Y.5 NYC Counties9871

Varying detention rates defy any logical explanation

We found that jail incarceration and pretrial detention rates vary greatly from city to city. There are some high outliers; Memphis, Tenn., for example, has a total jail detention rate of 491 per 100,000 residents, far above the average jail detention rate across the 63 cities of 225 per 100,000. On the other end of the spectrum, cities like New York and Minneapolis jail fewer than 100 residents per 100,000. Similarly, the pretrial detention rates in St. Louis and Baltimore (395 and 330 per 100,000, respectively) are more than double the average pretrial detention rate for the cities we studied, which was 163 per 100,000. We considered various possible explanations for the drastic differences from city to city, but didn’t find many consistent trends.

Local crime rates don’t consistently explain jail detention rates

First, we used the FBI’s Universal Crime Reporting program data to analyze the cities’ violent crime and total crime rates, to see if high rates of crime correlated with high rates of detention.3 Memphis, St. Louis, and Baltimore — all of which have notably high detention or pretrial detention rates — do in fact have the three highest violent and total crime rates of the cities for which we were able to obtain data.4 This pattern isn’t consistent across other cities, though. For example, Charleston, S.C., has some of the highest jail detention and pretrial detention rates, yet its violent crime and total crime rates rank among the lowest of these cities. On the other end of the spectrum, Detroit boasts very low detention rates, but has a relatively high violent crime rate.

It’s also difficult to know how directly violent crime is actually impacting detention rates because other factors likely influence both crime and incarceration. Poverty, addiction, and a lack of social services, for example, could contribute separately to high rates of both crime and jail detention. In fact, detention itself has been shown to increase the odds of future offending, which is counterproductive from a crime rate-defined public safety standpoint.

Local police and jail budgets don’t explain jail rates, either

Next, we explored whether police budgets were correlated with jail and pretrial detention rates. Using the Vera Institute’s police budget data, we examined the percent of city funds spent on policing and the number of city dollars per resident allocated to the police. Our analysis did not reveal any noteworthy connections between these measures and local jail rates, however.

The Vera Institute also provides data on the jail budgets in major cities and the number of county dollars spent per resident specifically on jails. Again, we found no strong correlations between jail budgets and jail incarceration rates. The only notable finding is a correlation between changes in jail population and changes in jail budgets since 2011: Cities that reduced their jail budgets (or avoided large increases) also reduced their jail populations more dramatically. While this may not be particularly surprising, it does suggest that cutting jail budgets could help communities reduce the number of people cycling through jails, while freeing up money to be used elsewhere, like schools.

scatterplot graph showing changes in jail budgets since 2011 versus changes in jail populations since 2011. Cities that reduced jail budgets also saw reduced jail populations.

In many places, the effects of bail reform remain to be seen

A number of cities and states included in this analysis, such as Philadelphia and Dallas, have enacted bail reforms in the past few years. However, since most of these changes occurred after 2018 — the most recent year for which the Vera Institute’s jail detention data are available — the data we used for this analysis do not yet show the effects of those reforms. Ultimately, these reforms should result in reduced pretrial detention rates. Current data show bail reforms have an impact on overall jail detention as well, since the pretrial population makes up about two-thirds of jail populations nationwide.

In New Jersey, for example, pretrial detention populations decreased by 50 percent from 2015 to 2018 – which was just one year after reforms were implemented. Additionally, New Jersey and San Francisco both saw at least 45 percent decreases in their overall jail populations after instituting bail reforms. We hope and expect these reforms (and others implemented more recently) will continue to lower rates of pretrial incarceration in cities and counties across the country.

While there isn’t a clear explanation for why jail incarceration and pretrial detention rates vary so much from city to city, it is clear that too many people cycle through jails each year, and reforms are long overdue. City leaders need to start investing in their communities instead of jails by expanding access to health care and social services, and implementing alternatives to incarceration.

Appendix

CityStateCountyJail detention rate (per 100,000 county residents)Pretrial detention rate (per 100,000 county residents)Violent crime rate (per 100,000 county residents) Total crime rate (per 100,000 county residents) Policing budget Jail budget Jail population change since 2011Jail budget change since 2011
AlbuquerqueN.M.Bernalillo County179187no data no data $211,084,000 $77,707,756 -52%-13%
AtlantaGa.Fulton County279198no data no data $248,508,775 $90,484,158 8%13%
AustinTexasTravis County195143380 3,569 $491,265,529 $99,791,862 -31%17%
BaltimoreMd.None3313301,843 6,116 $549,046,349 no data no data no data
BillingsMont.Yellowstone County246224no data no data $27,017,423 $13,708,860 26%69%
BirminghamAla.Jefferson County249179no data no data $92,775,797 no data no data no data
BoiseIdahoAda County232205193 1,097 $70,561,456 $28,435,821 -8%20%
BostonMass.Suffolk County201118no data no data $431,731,291 no data no data no data
CharlestonS.C.Charleston County286229196 1,384 $53,445,152 $40,081,245 -53%9%
CharlestonW. Va.Kanawha County254193no data no data $22,489,588 $4,775,000 29%-4%
CharlotteN.C.Mecklenburg County143125no data no data $285,877,585 $90,941,557 -31%-5%
CheyenneWyo.Laramie County223201no data no data $14,493,787 $12,834,792 47%35%
ChicagoIll.Cook County126113497 2,076 $1,776,930,437 $437,932,791 -44%40%
Colorado SpringsColo.El Paso County279111461 3,254 $140,388,709 no data no datano data
ColumbusOhioFranklin County169133no data no data $347,780,657 $82,811,353 -21%19%
DallasTexasDallas County198152406 2,275 $545,974,490 $143,920,841 -19%20%
DenverColo.Denver County295205no data no data $277,927,093 $118,219,314 -29%22%
Des MoinesIowaPolk County206174342 2,344 $71,546,587 $38,268,987 -22%10%
DetroitMich.Wayne County10764745 2,372 $318,193,356 $132,556,915 -43%14%
El PasoTexasEl Paso County277177319 1,629 $157,607,718 $73,784,469 8%1%
FargoN.D.Cass County154155326 2,595 $22,832,341 $14,171,961 2%42%
Fort WorthTexasTarrant County168121201 1,417 $352,893,268 no data no data no data
FresnoCalif.Fresno County305221no data no data $201,764,000 no data no data no data
HoustonTexasHarris County185141694 3,764 $899,879,053 no data no data no data
IndianapolisInd.Marion County249189no data no data $283,571,003 no data no data no data
JacksonMiss.Hinds County259252no data no data $37,523,140 no data no data no data
JacksonvilleFla.Duval County297119no data no data $481,594,597 $124,301,200 -18%17%
Kansas CityMo.Jackson County140120no data no data $262,247,405 $29,623,840 -15%31%
Las VegasNev.Clark County251132no data no data $173,702,925 $286,998,563 -12%36%
Little RockArk.Pulaski County272203875 4,385 $80,209,890 no data no data no data
Los AngelesCalif.Los Angeles County170105346 1,442 $1,735,493,169 $1,347,462,000 -5%44%
LouisvilleKy.Jefferson County308171602 4,014 $191,988,200 $56,639,000 -38%-1%
ManchesterN.H.Hillsborough County10053no data no data $25,285,675 no data no data no data
MemphisTenn.Shelby County4912451,382 5,906 $274,511,008 $138,591,511 -29%-8%
MiamiFla.Miami-Dade County149112297 2,088 $281,251,000 $383,686,000 -35%12%
MilwaukeeWis.Milwaukee County240126842 2,444 $321,470,403 no data no data no data
MinneapolisMinn.Hennepin County9962318 1,868 $193,360,000 $74,904,183 -44%22%
NashvilleTenn.Davidson County361191no data no data $216,790,900 $56,703,800 -33%-12%
New OrleansLa.Orleans Parish397301no data no data $206,887,632 $73,312,897 -73%-7%
New YorkN.Y.5 NYC Counties9871no data no data $11,036,298,140 $2,307,064,976 -58%-1%
NewarkN.J.Essex County262242no data no data $207,955,896 no data no data no data
Oklahoma CityOkla.Oklahoma County243173604 4,029 $226,626,456 no data no data no data
OmahaNeb.Douglas County225204521 3,652 $159,838,743 $54,353,577 -4%55%
PhiladelphiaPa.Philadelphia County389257no data no data $956,632,151 $220,169,920 -45%-18%
PhoenixAriz.Maricopa County171131no data no data $909,129,491 no data no data no data
PortlandMaineCumberland County1549065 746 $17,757,540 $20,579,182 -28%16%
PortlandOre.Multnomah County134106464 4,917 $238,190,326 $109,598,622 -35%18%
RaleighN.C.Wake County111101132 1,038 $109,694,902 $50,109,750 -7%55%
SacramentoCalif.Sacramento County235116365 1,950 $184,342,524 no data no data no data
Salt Lake CityUtahSalt Lake County208191189 1,876 $82,235,729 $105,080,518 -36%32%
San AntonioTexasBexar County195184591 4,253 $479,091,284 $72,653,612 -3%7%
San DiegoCalif.San Diego County17682201 1,141 $542,087,473 $387,184,895 -10%63%
San FranciscoCalif.San Francisco County143118no data no data $706,182,301 no data no data no data
San JoseCalif.Santa Clara County172127254 1,631 $473,208,901 $243,451,168 -38%15%
SeattleWash.King County137107227 1,927 $440,240,547 $208,640,119 -39%20%
Sioux FallsS.D.Minnehaha County174174493 3,589 $41,028,140 $17,020,439 -6%53%
St. LouisMo.None3933951,913 8,049 $154,870,227 $35,382,770 -46%-8%
TampaFla.Hillsborough County211145235 1,479 $176,982,462 $192,045,470 -27%4%
TucsonAriz.Pima County178147no data no data $193,274,430 $52,554,404 -2%0%
TulsaOkla.Tulsa County248172647 4,080 $121,682,000 no data no data no data
Virginia BeachVa.None328148129 1,885 $102,960,533 $40,694,736 -14%21%
Washington, D.C.D.C.None294158982 5,247 $655,379,632 $203,529,000 -51%21%
WichitaKan.Sedgwick County230171885 4,967 $89,245,584 $33,793,490 -2%6%

Footnotes

  1. These cities represent some of the 50 largest cities across the country, as well as the largest cities in each state.  ↩

  2. Four cities – Baltimore, St. Louis, Virginia Beach, Va., and Washington, D.C. – are independent cities not part of a county. In these cases, Vera reported the detention rate for the cities themselves.  ↩

  3. We calculated violent crime and total crime rates for the 38 cities and counties for which the FBI had complete data. We did this by adding the reported crime counts from the city police and corresponding county sheriff’s offices together. (For independent cities, we only used the crime counts from city police.) Then, to calculate the rates, we used the populations for each county as reported in the Vera Institute’s Trends dataset, which was the same population used to calculate the jail and pretrial detention rates in this briefing.  ↩

  4. It’s difficult to compare cities because there are a multitude of factors that could explain differing crime rates. However, the FBI’s UCR data is the closest we can get to having somewhat standardized data across multiple cities and counties.  ↩