Technology has already created innovative solutions for our bloated jail populations, we just have to implement them


The following op-ed was co-authored by R Street Research Associate Jon Haggerty. 

On any given day, roughly 750,000 people are locked up in American jails. Indeed, one-in-three incarcerated persons are sitting in local jails, rather than state or federal prisons. These staggering numbers ensure the United States maintains the highest incarceration rates in the world. Ultimately, finding solutions to our incarceration problem may require the innovation and cost-effectiveness that only technology can provide.

In an average year, 11 million people will churn through the jail system, many of whom have not been convicted of any crime but are simply too poor to post bail. This “pre-trial” population has driven the 99 percent growth in jail populations over the past 15 years.

All of these bodies behind bars have devastating effects not only on citizens — those who are locked up and their families — but also on taxpayers. In Texas alone, it’s estimated that approximately 24,000 low-risk individuals are locked up awaiting disposition of their cases. At an average daily cost of roughly $59 to house an inmate, these low-risk offenders cost the state slightly less than $1.5 million a day, or $520 million a year. In a state like California, it costs roughly $190 a day to house inmates.

Tragically, even brief jail stints are associated with disturbing rates of suicide — outpacing prison suicides. Being forced to miss work for multiple days can cause a legally innocent person to lose their job, face eviction and not be able to pay taxes. Moreover, the length of pre-trial detention is strongly correlated with increased recidivism.


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