The Function of Local Jails

The American prison system can sometimes be a bit difficult to understand. You have to know the judicial process, the difference between detention centers, federal, and private prisons, and all the different rules and regulations that vary with every facility. Sometimes it’s much easier to look at one thing at a time.

Jails, while perhaps not given the same attention or emphasis as actual prisons, serve an important purpose. If you or a loved one are ever arrested, it’s very helpful to know how these facilities generally work ahead of time and how they differ from prisons.

The Basics


Local jails are facilities that are designed to hold individuals who are awaiting trial or serving short sentences. These facilities are usually under the jurisdiction of a city, local district, or county, and their primary function is to manage inmate behavior and ensure public safety by providing secure confinement for those who have been accused or convicted of a crime. The Bartow County Jail, for instance, is a detention center in Cartersville, Georgia, and is operated by the Bartow County Sheriff’s Department. The custody, care, and treatment of inmates are also important functions of local jails, as they provide programs for rehabilitation, education, and recreation.

Local jails differ from prisons in several ways. Jails are usually intended for short-term sentences and temporary confinement, while prisons are for those who have been convicted of a crime and sentenced to more extended periods of incarceration. Jails are also responsible for supervising a small number of pretrial detainees and convicted inmates through community-based supervision programs. In contrast, prisons are designed to hold individuals who have been convicted of more serious crimes and are serving sentences longer than a year.

Local jails play a crucial role in the criminal justice system, as they serve many different purposes. They are responsible for managing inmate behavior, providing programs for rehabilitation, education, and recreation, and ensuring public safety. They also provide sentencing alternatives for felony offenders in lieu of incarceration through community corrections programs. Additionally, jails are an essential part of the criminal justice system, as they help to reduce prison populations and provide a means of punishment and rehabilitation for those who have committed crimes.

Public Safety

Local jails play a critical role in the criminal justice system by holding individuals who are awaiting trial or sentencing. These facilities are usually run by county sheriffs or city police and are designed to hold inmates for short periods, typically less than one year. Pretrial practices, including pretrial diversion efforts, pretrial services, bail decisions, and pretrial detention in jails, are crucial in ensuring that individuals are held appropriately before their trial or sentencing. However, it is important to note that more than 400,000 people in the U.S. are currently being detained pretrial, despite still being legally innocent.

Another important role of local jails is to separate dangerous offenders from the community. Jails are designed to hold individuals who are considered a threat to public safety, either because they have been convicted of a crime or because they are awaiting trial for a serious offense. In some cases, jails may offer programs that allow non-dangerous offenders to work on community projects or participate in other activities that benefit society. However, the primary focus of local jails is to ensure public safety by keeping dangerous individuals off the streets.

Finally, local jails can provide treatment and rehabilitation services to inmates. Rehabilitation programs are designed to reduce recidivism by improving an offender’s behaviors, skills, and mental health. Many jails offer substance abuse treatment and other programs that can help inmates overcome addiction and improve their chances of successful reentry into society. However, it is important to note that the effectiveness of these programs can vary widely, and more research is needed to determine the best practices for rehabilitation in local jails.

Facing Challenges


One of the most significant challenges facing local jails is overcrowding and underfunding. Overcrowding can lead to safety concerns for both inmates and staff, as well as inadequate access to medical care and other essential services. The lack of funding also contributes to the inability to provide necessary programming and resources to inmates, such as education and job training. The Prison Policy Initiative suggests strategies for reducing jail overcrowding instead of building new facilities. Despite the importance of addressing these issues, jail spending only accounts for a small percentage of total local spending in many states.

Another challenge facing local jails is the high prevalence of mental health and substance abuse issues among inmates. A significant number of individuals in county jails have a mental illness or substance use disorder. Treatment for these issues is critical to reducing crime and societal burdens, such as lost job productivity. However, jails often lack the resources to provide adequate treatment and support for these individuals. As a result, many individuals with mental health and substance abuse issues end up in the criminal justice system, exacerbating the overcrowding and underfunding issues mentioned earlier.

Staffing and training concerns are also significant challenges facing local jails. Recruitment, selection, and retention of staff can be difficult, and proper training is essential to ensure the safety and security of both staff and inmates. Overworked and under trained staff can put themselves and inmates at risk. However, civilian correctional staff can be trained to improve safety and security. Additionally, job training centers in jails can help link incarcerated adults to the workforce system during incarceration to strengthen their reentry prospects. Addressing these staffing and training concerns can contribute to a safer and more effective jail system.

Overall, local jails are a flawed but vital part of our criminal justice system. While improvements still must be made to the prison system as a whole, including local jails and detention centers, we’re slowly progressing towards a better system that works to benefit everyone.