Why Do the Unconvicted Die More in Jail?

Why Do the Unconvicted Die More in Jail?

A lot of outlets are reporting that 7 in 10 people who die in jail haven't been convicted of anything. This isn't quite as shocking as it may seem: Most people in jail, period, haven't been convicted of anything.

Jails house convicts who've received short sentences (up to a year), but they also hold people who are awaiting trial or sentencing. Those sentenced to more than a year leave jail to go to prison.

That said, judging by the Justice Department's statistics, the unconvicted do tend to make up a higher percentage of jail deaths than they do of the total jail population. For reference, there are about 1,000 jail deaths each year, and the total jail population is around 450,000:

Put a different way, to create a gap this big, the unconvicted have to have a mortality rate nearly twice that of the convicted: 154 vs. 87 per 100,000 as of 2012. (If that seems wrong, do the math. Differences often seem more dramatic when expressed as rates than as percentages of the total population.)

There are numerous possible explanations, but some hints can be found by looking at causes of death. The unconvicted are overrepresented across the board, but especially for certain causes, among them suicide. The unconvicted were 82 percent of jail suicides from 2000 to 2012, which is pertinent not only because the death of Sandra Bland has pushed the issue into public view, but also because suicides are 30 percent of all jail deaths. Suicides are especially likely to happen in the earliest days of incarceration.

The unconvicted are also a high percentage (80) of drug and alcohol fatalities. They're 74 percent of homicides, and in the vicinity of 71 percent of accidents and various diseases.

The data on race are also interesting. Whites have about twice the mortality rate of blacks in jails, though the data aren't broken down by conviction status. This discrepancy, too, is most pronounced for suicides, a pattern also found in society as a whole.

For more on jails and ideas for reform, see this Q&A with two scholars from the left-leaning Brennan Center, written by RCP intern Matthew Disler.

[Update: Coincidentally, today saw the release of another year's worth of data on jail mortality.]

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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