Jail is not supposed to be where you put the mentally ill or those too poor to pay bail. Nor is it supposed to be where African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asians go for crimes that don’t land white people behind bars. But that is what they are increasingly becoming.
The primary purpose of jails, unlike prisons, is to be a temporary holding space where those who are a danger to the public or are a flight risk can await court proceedings. But they now hold many who are neither. Too often, jails are warehouses of low-risk individuals who are too poor to post bail or too sick for existing community resources to manage.
Many jails today are being asked to do the job of mental health institutions, even though they lack the resources and expertise to treat people suffering from mental illness or substance abuse. Research shows that serious mental illness affects an estimated 14.5% of men in jails and 31% of women – rates that are three to six times higher than in the general population.