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Census of Jails

While many people are familiar with the United States Census every 10 years as mandated by the Constitution, over 100 different surveys are conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau each year. SBB Research Group summarizes vital information from Census.gov about these lesser-known—but significant—surveys in this educational series.


The Census of Jails is conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and surveys over 3,000 local jails and 12 Federal Bureau of Prisons that function as jails. Temporary holding facilities and local jails in Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Vermont are excluded from the census. The survey began in 1978 and publishes reports on various topics, including correctional populations, jail inmates, and the impact of COVID on the local jail population.


The most recent report is the Census of Jails, 2005-2019 Statistical Tables, which outline national, state, and local trends. The five states with the lowest incarceration rates (inmates per 100,000 state residents) were New Hampshire (103), New York (105), New Jersey (107), Maine (120), and Minnesota (121), all of which saw a decrease from 2005 to 2019. The five states with the highest rates were Louisiana (700), Kentucky (586), Mississippi (482), Tennessee (457), and Georgia (422). Whereas Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky have increased incarceration rates since 2005. A significant majority (65.5%) of the confined inmates in jails across the U.S. await trial or other legal proceedings or are otherwise unconvicted.

Note: Excludes data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons detention facilities and the jail and prison systems in Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Census of Jails, 2005 and 2019 Statistical Tables.


In a more comprehensive report, the Census of Jails and several other sources published Correctional Populations in the United States, 2020, the authors outline several trends across the entire correctional system (i.e., probation, parole, prison, and jail). Since 2010, there has been a steady decrease in adult individuals supervised by the correctional system — 7,089,000 in 2010 compared with 6,343,300 in 2019. Most adults (70%) under correctional supervision were paroled or on probation, and 30% were incarcerated in local jails and federal prisons. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the overall correctional population significantly decreased, driven by a drop in probation (-42%), prison (-33%), and local jail (-28%) populations, whereas the parole population had a slight increase of 1.7%. As a result, at the end of 2020, for the first time since 1996, the total number of adults in the correctional system dropped below 5.6 million (from 6,152,800 at the beginning of 2020 to 5,500,600 at the end of 2020).


How are These Data Used?

The data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics are used by federal, state, and local governments to examine the efficiency of the correctional system. For example, within Illinois, North Carolina, New Mexico, South Carolina, and Missouri, more than 80% of each state’s inmates in jails were unconvicted. Understanding these data contributes to the development of new policies that address inefficiencies in the judicial system and predict personnel and infrastructure needs for the correctional system.


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