(De)carceral Jail Administration

60 Pages Posted: 13 Apr 2020

Date Written: March 16, 2020


The machinery of mass incarceration in America is huge, intricate, and destructive. To understand it and to tame it, scholars and activists look for the levers – where are they, who holds them, and what motivates them? This much we know: legislators criminalize, police arrest, prosecutors charge, judges sentence, prison officials confine, and probation and parole officials manage release.

As this Article reveals, jailers, too, have their hands on the controls. The sheriffs who run jails and the county commissioners who fund them have tremendous but unrecognized power over the size and shape of our criminal justice system, particularly in rural areas and particularly for people accused or convicted of low-level crimes.

Because they have the authority to build jails (or not) as well as the authority to release people (or not), they exercise significant control over both the supply of and demand for jail bedspace: not just conditions in jails, but how they should be and how many people should be confined in them. Through their power to finance jail construction and operations, jailers determine who has a stake in carceral expansion and contraction. Their decisions are influenced by politics – and by money. Constraints they create or relieve on carceral infrastructure exert or alleviate pressure on other officials at the local, state, and federal levels.

Drawing on surveys of state statutes and of municipal securities filings, data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, case law, and media coverage, this Article tells overlooked stories, of sheriffs who send their deputies out door-knocking to convince voters to support a new tax to fund a new jail, and of commissioners who raise criminal court fees and sign contracts to detain “rental inmates” to ensure that incarceration “pays for itself.” It also tells of jail population caps imposed by commissioners, and of sheriffs who override the arrest decisions of city police officers, release defendants who have not made bail, and cut sentences short.

Keywords: jail, sheriff, decarceration

Suggested Citation

Littman, Aaron, (De)carceral Jail Administration (March 16, 2020). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3555959 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3555959

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