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June 9, 2016

Unpacking the (never-simplistic and never-certain) stories of state crimes and incarceration levels

This new Atlantic story, headlined "Crime Is Down, Sort Of: New stats on U.S. imprisonment rates suggest a complicated future for criminal-justice reform," provides a usefully nuanced account of this new Brennen Center report titled simply "Update: Changes in State Imprisonment Rates." Here first is what the Brennan Center sets up its report: 

Today, there are 2.3 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails — a 500 percent increase over the last forty years. With almost one in 100 American adults behind bars, our incarceration rate is the world’s highest. This fact sheet provides an update to findings on state imprisonment trends originally outlined in The Reverse Mass Incarceration Act. It analyzes data from all 50 states on imprisonment and crime from 2006 (as bipartisan criminal justice reforms generally began around 2007) through 2014 (the most recent year of data).

Two overarching findings:

1. Many argue that increased incarceration is necessary to reduce crime.  Yet the data shows the opposite.  Over the last ten years, 27 states have decreased both crime and imprisonment.  Not only is this trend possible, it’s played out in the majority of states. Nationally, imprisonment and crime have fallen together, 7 percent and 23 percent respectively since 2006.  Crime continued its downward trend while incarceration also decreased.

2. In recent years, states in the South have seen some of the largest decreases in imprisonment.  Yet, they also remain the largest incarcerators in the country.  Mississippi reduced imprisonment by 10 percent but still has the nation’s 5th highest incarceration rate.  Texas has reduced imprisonment by 15 percent yet still has the 7th highest imprisonment rate in the country.

And here is a snippet from the Atlantic's discussion of the report:

Many Americans might make a basic mathematical error in looking at the country’s criminal-justice system: They assume more people in jail or prison always equals less crime, and more crime necessarily calls for putting more people behind bars. Both conclusions are wrong. A new report from the Brennan Center for Justice provides some illuminating data on this point.

The report’s most fascinating finding is that imprisonment and overall crime rates were down 7 percent and 23 percent, respectively, from 2006 to 2014. “States will continue to decrease imprisonment slowly; we might perhaps see crime leveling out,” Chettiar said. “Criminologists say we have reached an all-time low in crime. I expect we’ll continue to see low crime and lowered imprisonment rates.”...

In the analysis, high achievers included Rhode Island, New Jersey, Hawaii, Nebraska, Connecticut, California, Colorado, and South Carolina. All saw double-digit drops in their rates of imprisonment per 100,000 residents. That does not necessarily indicate a dramatic drop in the actual number of people behind bars—an overall decrease in the rate at which a state imprisons people can result from many factors, including the release of current inmates, diversion efforts to keep those arrested out of jail, and the reclassification of low-level crimes that may let some offenders bypass custody....

In terms of overall crime, Vermont, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Illinois, Maryland, and Louisiana reduced their rates most. Each saw a decrease of 30 percent or more in their crime rates per 100,000 residents. States such as New Hampshire, North Dakota, and South Dakota each saw big increases in their in crime rates, all 30 percent or higher.

As policymakers are paying increased attention to the shortcomings of the criminal-justice system and more citizens seem to accept the need for policy changes, these facts suggest reform will look very different in different states—and above all, it will be complicated.

June 9, 2016 at 09:56 AM | Permalink

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