Jails in the U.S.: Role & Administrative Issues

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  • 0:02 Prisons v. Jails
  • 1:55 Role of Jails
  • 3:57 Administrative Issues
  • 6:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has taught and written various law courses.

Jails are one means of incarceration used in the U.S. criminal justice system. This lesson explains the role of jails, the difference between jails and prisons, and some challenges jail administrators face.

Prisons vs. Jails

In the United States, there are approximately two million inmates in our correctional facilities on any given day. More than 700 thousand of those people are sitting in jails, while the rest are doing time in prison. Think of it this way. While the entire population of San Diego does time in prison, the entire population of Detroit sits in jail.

Jails and prisons are not the same thing. A prison is an incarceration facility run by the state or federal government and used for long-term confinement. When an offender is convicted of a crime and given a sentence, that sentence will usually be served in a prison.

A jail, on the other hand, is an incarceration facility normally run by local government and used as a temporary holding facility. Jails are usually run by county sheriff's departments. They are mostly used when an offender was:

  • recently arrested and has not yet been charged with a crime
  • recently arrested and charged with a crime but has not been released on bail
  • convicted of a crime and given a sentence of less than one year

For example, let's say Darren is arrested for driving while intoxicated. He's taken to jail immediately after his arrest. Darren spends the night in jail, but after he sees a judge, he's released on bond. However, a few months later, Darren's convicted at his trial. He is sentenced to two years. Darren will serve that time in prison.

Role of Jails

Jails are an indispensable part of our criminal justice system. They serve many different roles. As you know, jails hold inmates while they await charges, trial or sentencing. Jails also:

  • hold offenders who have violated probation or parole and had probation or parole revoked
  • temporarily hold offenders who have been sentenced to prison time when prisons are too overcrowded to accept new inmates
  • hold mentally ill offenders while those offenders await transfer to a mental health facility
  • hold juvenile offenders while those offenders await transfer to an appropriate juvenile correctional facility
  • hold intoxicated persons in 'drunk tanks,' usually overnight, in order to sober up or to be charged with a crime, such as public intoxication

There are many different types of jails, and the roles vary between types. As we've discussed, most jails are run by the county. However, many jails are run by the city or town in which they are located. A few jails are even privately owned and operated through contracts with local governments. The type and size of the jail dictates how many and what type of offenders the jail will house.

For instance, some states use a state unified system, which means the jails and prisons are integrated and operated by the state government. These correctional facilities tend to be larger than average. In these states, one facility might hold both those offenders awaiting trial and those convicted offenders who are serving sentences. This is similar to federal jails, known as metropolitan correctional centers, which are large correctional facilities that house federal offenders awaiting trial and inmates serving sentences after conviction of a federal offense.

Administrative Issues

The size of the jail and number of inmates also dictates the type of challenges jail administrators face. A jail administrator is similar to a prison warden. The jail administrator is responsible for managing and supervising all operations of the jail.

Knowing the various roles of a jail, you can see how this job requires an understanding of business administration, personnel management, public funding, the correctional system, institutional psychology and general health. It's a demanding job!

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