It has become increasingly clear to mainstream America that our nation's decades-long experiment with mass incarceration is fundamentally a bad idea. And though state prisons loom large in the public mind, it's actually local jails where most of the (bad) action happens.

Today, the Vera Institute for Justice released a report that attempts to take stock of the situation in America's local jails—institutions that, remember, hold either people serving very short sentences, or people awaiting trial who have not been convicted of any crime at all (often there because they are too poor to make bail). The majority of people in jail have not been convicted of a crime. Jails are by far the most common point of contact between citizens and the prison industrial complex. And their scale is staggering. A few key facts from the report:

  • "There are more than 3,000 jails in the United States, holding 731,000 people on any given day."
  • In a year, there are almost 12 million individual admissions to jails in America, which is "nearly 19 times the annual admissions to state and federal prisons." The number of annual jail admissions has nearly doubled in the past 30 years, although crime rates have fallen significantly since the early 1990s.
  • The average length of a jail stay "increased from an average of 14 days in 1983 to 23 days in 2013." During that same period, the percentage of jail inmates who were being held before trial (as opposed to after conviction and sentencing) rose from 40% to 62%.
  • The vast majority of people in jail are not there for violent crimes: "nearly 75 percent of the population of both sentenced offenders and pretrial detainees are in jail for nonviolent traffic, property, drug, or public order offenses." Close to a quarter of people in jail are there for drug-related crimes.

The report also makes clear the extent to which local jails are being disproportionately used to house minorities, the poor, and the mentally ill. It is a thoroughly depressing picture.

A jail is not a social safety net. Quite the opposite.

[The full report. Photo via AP]