Travis County Jail in 2015: Data points to racism and longer confinement of African Americans

Local jails are a significant factor in mass incarceration in the United States. As the first place of incarceration for individuals in the criminal justice system, jail admissions in the U.S. were 19 times higher than the number of prison admissions in 2015 totaling just under 11 million people. Second to only state prisons in total daily incarceration, 2015 saw 731,000 people locked up on any given day in the 3,000 plus jails across the United States. That year in Travis County, there were 47,660 total bookings and the average daily population was 2,465.

Mass incarceration disproportionately impacts people of color. Despite representing only about 30 percent of the United States’ population, people of color account for more than 60 percent of those imprisoned. Of males born in 2001, 1 in 3 Blacks and 1 in 6 Latinos will go to prison at some point during their lifetimes compared with only 1 out of every 17 Whites. Unsurprisingly, evidence points to disparate outcomes for those identified as both Black and Hispanic by the Travis County Jail in 2015. However, Blacks faced far more consistently unequal confinement and will therefore be the focus of this report.

Nationally, Blacks are jailed at almost four times the rate of Whites and Black women are three times more likely than White women to be incarcerated. Mirroring national trends, the Urban Institute and the Center for Policing Equity recently found that among stops made by the Austin Police Department, Black motorists were four times more likely to be arrested as White motorists. A complex combination of factors contributes to these disparities, including socio-economic inequities and policing priorities and practices, particularly in neighborhoods and schools where Blacks are highly represented. A principal cause of these factors undoubtedly continues to be racism, both on the part of institutions and individuals within those institutions.

Along with arrest rates, the length of confinement for individuals convicted of crimes clearly demonstrates the discriminatory treatment Blacks are subjected to within the criminal justice system. For example, Black male defendants in the federal system have been found to receive longer sentences than Whites arrested for the same offenses with comparable criminal histories by nearly 20 percent. Incredibly, as this report will show, discrimination against Blacks is also apparent in the length of confinement for “unconvicted” defendants in Travis County as well.

While local jails do incarcerate people convicted of crimes, as well as those with parole violations, bench warrants and Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainers, the vast majority of people held in jails, including the Travis County Jail, are pre-trial defendants that have not been convicted of any charge for which they’re detained. In fact, from 1999 to 2014, 99% of the growth in jail populations nationally was due to jails housing more pre-trial “unconvicted” defendants. Despite this, the average time individuals were locked up in local jails rose by about 9 days between 1983 and 2013. Therefore, jails are holding people for longer lengths of time even though more of the jail population has not been convicted of a crime.

Jail time, however brief, wreaks havoc on the lives of individuals, families, and communities. Individuals miss work or even lose jobs and subsequently health insurance, vehicles, and housing with devastating effects on their families, especially if those individuals are a family’s sole wage earner. Parents lose custody of children, the infirm lose care-takers, and those with medical and mental health needs who are jailed often experience harmful lapses in care. In addition, detention beyond 24 hours is linked to further involvement in the criminal justice system.

While racial disparity in jail time is by no means unique locally, sentencing discrimination, and a more frequent inability to pay bail cannot fully explain why Blacks are so consistently subjected to lengthier confinement in Travis County.

Download the report.