Librado Romero / The New York Times / Redux

How Long People Stay is the Problem

Michael Jacobson and Victoria Lawson

March 12, 2024

Pragmatic steps the city can take to reduce length of stay

Pragmatic steps the city can take to reduce length of stay

The planned closure of the Rikers Island and the extant borough jails in 2027 — and their replacement with four smaller borough-based facilities — requires a significant reduction in the incarcerated population. That means either fewer people need to enter the jails in the first place, those who enter need to cycle out more quickly, or both.

Two recent efforts from New York State address the admissions side of the equation, one focusing on bail reform and the second on technical parole violations. While both reforms have been hotly debated in the press and political campaigns, the best evidence shows that both of these efforts meaningfully advanced justice and fairness and did so in a way that did not negatively affect public safety.

There’s been far too little attention paid thus far to the second driver of population, how long people stay in jail. This is especially unfortunate because, in recent years, the amount of time people stay in jail has increased to a staggering degree, worsening the mental health, physical health and life course of tens of thousands of people each year. These unnecessarily long durations make a mockery of the constitutional promise of a speedy disposition of justice for those accused of crimes and cost New York City taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars to operate a bloated and increasingly inefficient and dangerous jail system.

A note on data: This is not simply a technical note, though it is that too to help our readers make sense of the numbers. It is also a policy note because the absence of data, either because it is not public or because it is not collected at all, signals that it is not attended to by jail and city officials — who, if they were using it, would ensure that it were in usable form — or, worse, that these officials wish to limit public scrutiny. To put together the picture below, we have used data from a variety of sources.

Over the past two decades, the average length of stay in New York City jails has increased 136%, from a low of 44 days among those discharged in FY 2001 to 104 days in FY 2023.

As a result, the numbers vary sometimes slightly (for example, the differences between fiscal and calendar years) and sometimes more broadly, in particular the differences between the overall length of stay numbers for broad sections of the population and the more nuanced look by categories, for example, age, race and mental health status. For the overall numbers, we use discharge data including everyone released from jail during a particular time period. For anything more nuanced — unless it was already published (in which case we are limited to exactly the numbers that were published) — we use snapshot data, which includes everyone detained at a given point in time. Referred to as time in custody, length of stay using snapshot data is invariably longer than when using discharge data because it accounts for people still incarcerated on long stays and due to the large number of people with short jail stays or who cycle in and out of jail. 

I. Length of Stay for People Discharged From New York City Jails

Over the past two decades, the average length of stay in New York City jails has increased 136%, from a low of 44 days among those discharged in FY 2001 to 104 days in FY 2023. While much of the blame for this increase has been placed on the COVID pandemic — and certainly the pandemic exacerbated issues, as it did around the country — that is far from the whole story here. 

Chart 1: After 20 years of relatively low and stable lengths of stay, the duration of jail stays began a dramatic rise starting in FY 2018.

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Across charge level, the time to disposition for those held pretrial — who comprise the vast majority of the jail population — started to increase well before the pandemic hit in 2020. Those increases continue to this day. Between 2015 and 2021, length of stay among people discharged from New York City jails increased 171% among people being held for misdemeanor offenses and 55% among those being held for felonies. 

Chart 2: The length of stay of people charged with felony offenses has driven the longer duration of jail stays, but a sharp spike was also seen in misdemeanor offenses.

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New York City’s excessive jail stays are not the norm among large cities, and they have become progressively more aberrant over the past few decades. In calendar year 1991, average length of stay in New York City jails was higher than the norm in other cities, but by a relatively small margin. By contrast, in 2022, average length of stay in New York City was more than twice that of the top five largest jails in the country (114 days versus 55 days).

Chart 3: New York City has much higher lengths of stay than other large jail systems in the country.

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II. Time in Custody Among People Currently Detained

Looking at discharge data is critical to understanding length of stay because it accounts for the entirety of a person’s detention. But it may underrepresent length of stay in more recent years because it does not account for people still incarcerated at the time period examined. For example, in the jail population on December 1, 2023, there were 1,343 people who had been held for more than a year (22% of the population), including 328 who had been held for two to three years and 182 who had been held for more than three years. None of these people would have been included in any length of stay measurement for people discharged in 2023. Length of stay based on discharge data is also shorter than time in custody–length of stay based on “snapshot” data (meaning data from a single point in time)–due to the large proportion of people with short jail stays. 

Looking at snapshot data also enables the examination of more recent data, as well as exploration of subgroups of the population, something not possible with the very limited data available on Department of Correction (DOC) discharges. In particular, looking at snapshot data enables a more detailed look at charge level and detention status, as well as at characteristics of the jail population. 

The next chart breaks down the time in custody for people incarcerated on December 1, 2016, compared to December 1, 2023, by top charge (for those who were pretrial detainees) and detention status. 

Chart 4: The time people are held has increased for every category of hold between 2016 and 2023, with a 39% increase overall.

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Across almost all categories, time in custody increased between 2016 and 2023. Most of this has been driven by the ever-increasing stays for those being held pretrial while awaiting disposition of their case, who comprise the majority of the jail population. Between 2016 and 2023, average time in custody increased from 183 to 252 days, while among those held pretrial the average rose from 201 to 265. Pretrial time in custody is highest among those accused of serious crimes, reaching a staggering 302 days and counting for those detained at the end of 2023 for those accused of committing violent felonies.

Extreme delays across all types of cases can create incentives for defendants to plead guilty simply to be released from a jail stay that in some cases might be longer than the maximum sentence allowable for the crime they are accused of committing. For those unwilling to plead guilty, the consequences can be worse. Perhaps the most infamous example is that of Kalief Browder, a teenager who was held for three years between 2010 and 2013 pretrial, including roughly two years in solitary confinement, as his case bounced from judge to judge and appearance to appearance — eight judges and 31 appearances in total. His charges were ultimately dismissed, but the damage had already been done. He suffered from extreme depression following his release and committed suicide two years later. 

It is no surprise that the longer someone is held in pretrial status, the more likely it is that their mental and physical health will decline, that they will be the victim of jail violence, that they will wind up in prison and that their ties to their families, communities, employment, and schooling will be frayed, sometimes irrevocably. Ironically, having a mental health condition is itself associated with longer lengths of stay — those with a mental health concern were incarcerated more than 100 days longer than those without one in the current jail population. 

Chart 5. Time in custody is 54% higher among people with a mental health concern than people without one.

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III. Impact of Length of Stay on the Jail Population

Just how much does length of stay affect the jail population? This can be perhaps most clearly demonstrated by looking at what the size of the population would be if length of stay were reduced. Even if the number of admissions were to be held constant, if we were able to reduce length of stay to that of the five largest jails in the country (see Chart 3), New York City would have an average daily population of roughly 3,269, 46% lower than the current population and well below the capacity of the currently planned borough jails. Looking to the city’s own history, if case processing delays could be reduced enough to return to the pre-COVID length of stay in 2019, the jail population would shrink by over 1,000 people. Reducing delays back to 2017 lengths of stay would put the population below the capacity of the new jail system. 

Chart 6. If we could reduce length of stay to that of prior years, the population would be lower than the capacity of the new jail system.

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IV. What Can Be Done?

For those held pretrial, whether for a misdemeanor or felony charge, jail stays have gotten progressively and significantly longer over the last two decades (and especially over the last several years), contributing to a bloated, inefficient and increasingly harmful and dangerous jail system. These increases have been occurring despite the fact that by multiple measures the workload for the courts is decreasing. Between 2018 and 2022, arrests, arraignments and jail admissions all decreased considerably, yet time from arrest to arraignment and time from arraignment to disposition increased — a considerable increase in the case of the latter — along with the increase in length of stay.

Chart 7. While court workloads have decreased, case processing times have increased.

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By almost every meaningful measure, court workloads declined in the last four years while the time it took the courts to dispose of criminal cases increased. One might imagine that with declining workloads and more judicial resources per case, the times to disposition would have been reduced — but somewhat mysteriously, the opposite has occurred.

So what is to be done about the situation? While the responsibility to process cases expeditiously lies predominantly with the court system, which is ultimately responsible for moving cases through the process, every player bears some responsibility for the appalling deterioration in the time it takes to deliver any semblance of the speedy disposition of justice for those held in jail pretrial in New York City.

Applying a host of evidence-based best practices can help ensure the speedy disposition of justice. As outlined in a manual developed for the California Administration for the Courts, these include:

  1. maintaining court control of case scheduling; 
  2. creating and maintaining expectations that events will occur when they are scheduled; 
  3. creating opportunities and incentives for early case resolution; 
  4. creating maximum predictability of court procedures and outcomes; 
  5. finding opportunities to improve efficiency; 
  6. handling different types of cases differently; and 
  7. setting case processing goals and using court data to monitor compliance with them.

None of these strategies are foreign to the courts in New York City, but none are practiced or prioritized in a rigorous or systemic manner here. Add to this the fact that both prosecutors and defenders have their own incentives for delay, and you wind up with the system we have now, which at least tolerates or at worst rewards delay. 

Every player bears some responsibility for the appalling deterioration in the time it takes to deliver any semblance of the speedy disposition of justice for those held in jail pretrial in New York City.

We know that change is possible. In 2019, a pilot conducted in Brooklyn’s Supreme Court was able to significantly increase the percentage of felony cases disposed within the six-month standard recommended by the state. What’s more, these reductions in case processing time were even more pronounced for people detained pretrial as well as for people accused of violent felony offenses — those with the longest lengths of stay in pretrial detention.

To reverse this dysfunction, the mayor must forcefully and publicly demand change in how criminal cases are processed in New York City and work with the courts, prosecutors, defenders and corrections to enact reform. This is not simply a bureaucratic problem, it bears on fundamental questions of justice, fairness and efficiency. In addition, ensuring the courts move more swiftly has the potential to save New York City taxpayers billions of dollars over time and ensure the closure of Rikers Island through major reductions in the jail population. In a system as uncoordinated as ours, where driving change requires mobilizing and coordinating across a number of diverse and independent local government entities, for which no one person has control, the mayor has a unique opportunity and responsibility to step forward and lead. He must do so.