A Shockingly High Number of People End Up in Jail More Than Once a Year

Colman Andrews

A recidivist is a habitual criminal, one who relapses constantly into crime. That term applies to a surprisingly large number of offenders in the U.S., according to a new report by the Prison Policy Initiative called “Arrest, Release, Repeat.”

The non-profit criminalization research and advocacy organization surveys the number of prisoners incarcerated in county jails around the country each year. This year that adds up to at least 4.9 million people — which is more than the population of 24 different states. On any given day, local cells hold about 612,000 inmates, a number higher than the population of Wyoming.

The more shocking statistic, though, is that at least a quarter of those who go to jail in a given year will return to jail over the next year’s time. And at least 428,000 will go to jail three or more times in a single year.

Most people jailed repeatedly, the report stresses, are arrested for non-violent offenses like drug possession, theft, or trespassing.

Recidivists have other things in common: They are more likely than the general population to lack access to health care and to suffer from various illnesses, including substance use disorders. This is especially true in many of the places struggling with the opioid epidemic. These are the counties with the worst drug problems in every state.

Poverty is also a marker: 49% of those with multiple arrests in the past year had annual incomes of less than $10,000, compared to 36% of those with a single arrest.

In its policy recommendations, the report urges communities to address the economic and public health issues that often precipitate arrests. “Counties should stop using taxpayer dollars to repeatedly jail people,” according to Wendy Sawyer, co-author of the report, “and use the savings to fund public services that prevent justice involvement in the first place.” This seems like common sense, especially considering the cost of maintaining the U.S. incarceration system. Here is what it costs to run prisons in every state.