Beyond Jails Initiative

Pretrial justice reform: closing the door to mass incarceration

Local jails are the front door to mass incarceration. On any given day, nearly one-third of incarcerated people in the United States are detained in jails—with the majority awaiting trial and still considered legally innocent.

While that snapshot is dire on its own, it does not fully capture the frequency at which people enter and exit jails. In 2021 alone, people went to jail almost 7 million times. What’s more, between mid-2021 and fall 2022, the number of people held in local jails rose by 7 percent to 677,000 people—a 24 percent increase over the number of people in local jails at midyear 2020.

Incarcerating so many people in jails, especially prior to trial, does not create safety. In fact, research shows that spending as few as 24 hours in jail actually increases a person’s likelihood of being arrested in the future.1 This is due to the destabilizing effects of detention, including loss of employment, housing, and community ties.2 The negative public safety consequences only escalate with longer periods of detention.3

Our goals of both safety and justice can be met without using jails as our first or primary response.