What Are County Jails For?


A county jail is a facility that be commonly associated with a federal prison. The words Prison and Jail are often interchangeably used but when legal professionals use the world jail they are often referring to a local county jail rather than a full federal prison. The truth is there are some big differences between prison and Jail.

jail roster inmate

The basic idea of a jail is to produce a secure facility that services 3 base types of inmates:

  • People who have been sentenced but they are awaiting transfer to a different facility or a federal facility.
  • People that are being held after arrest for sentencing, an agreement or a trial.
  • People who have been convicted of a criminal offence classified as a misdemeanor that may be serving for less than a year.

These county jails are operated not by the federal government but by the city government or county government directly. A county jail may otherwise be called a detention facility and sometimes as lockups. A lockup is usually what people refer to as a small prison where a few prisoners can be held during transfers or before sentencing. Normally lockups don’t have long term prisoners.

County jails see a larger turnaround than prisons. Although many may just stay a few days or less than a day, new detainees come into many county jails almost daily. Unless a court order is given for their release, bail is met prisoners will not be permitted to leave. Prisoners can also be released with conditions like probation, pretrial services caseload issues or under an agreement that they will appear in court to settle the charges against them.

Many county jails are often used for the purpose of “drying people out”. This means that a good number of people arrive in jail as a result of public intoxication charges, with injuries or assult charges and other issues that may have lead to their apprehension. The intake process in a county jail usually requires ample medical staff as well as guards that are willing to take on daily challenges of uncooperative and occasionally violent/impaired offenders.

The definition and purpose of a county jail can vary from state to state. There are some states like Pennsylvania that recognize jails and county prisons and in 6 states the county jail also provides federal prison services as well. There are also several cut off variances depending on the state as well. Some states have a cut off for county jail sentencing at 2 years maximum stay, whereas others do not keep inmates who need to serve longer than 1 year.

Overall the goals of county jails are much intertwined with that of a federal prison, only they have a shorter amount of time to work with inmates. A county jail is often used as a deterrent punishment for a number of crimes as well as place where prisoners can find assistance with short term Rehabilitation. County jails can also provide a secure facility over the short term to prevent a violent or dangerous offender from harming the public in any way.