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June 14, 2018

"The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration"

Download (15)The title of this post is the title of this notable new publication from The Vera Institute of Justice.   Here is much of its introduction:

After decades of continuous growth, the United States’ prison population began to plateau in the new millennium as the nation entered an era of criminal justice reform aimed at lowering the footprint of incarceration.  This seemed to herald the beginning of the end for mass incarceration.  Since 2007, when the country hit a peak of nearly 800 people in prison per 100,000 working age adults — over 1.6 million people total — overall prison incarceration has declined by about 1 percent on average each year.  The new downward trajectory of incarceration in the United States has paralleled a reckoning with the mounting costs of confinement and a growing awareness that incarceration in America was — in the words of a 2014 National Research Council report — “historically unprecedented and internationally unique,” and did not have the promised impact on public safety. (See “A brief history of mass incarceration: From unified growth to an era of reform” at page 8.)

Legislative and policy reforms have not brought a swift reversal of mass incarceration, however.  Even prison population trends — long used as convenient barometer of criminal justice reform’s progress — show that unwinding the nation’s overreliance on incarceration will be a longterm endeavor.  At the current pace, it will be 149 years until U.S. prison incarceration rates are as low as they were in 1970. (See Figure 1 at page 6.)

At the same time, while aggregated national prison population data indicates slow decline, it cannot be the sole indicator used to measure the progress made in the nation’s recent efforts to reduce incarceration.  Prison populations are slow to change after the implementation of most policy or practice changes, and thus provide an inadequate metric by which to measure and adjust the immediate impact of reforms — or regressive legislation.  Furthermore, a reliance on aggregate prison data fails to acknowledge or measure the tremendous variation in incarceration trends from state to state and within states, and ignores a significant locus of incarceration: local jails — county- or municipally-run facilities that primarily hold people arrested but not yet convicted of a crime.  For example, while much of the country is locking fewer people in jails and prisons, Kentucky is doing the opposite. If jails and prisons continue to grow in Kentucky as they have since 2000, everyone in the state will be incarcerated in 113 years. A comprehensive look at disparately reported metrics for the nation’s 50 state prison systems and 2,872 local jail jurisdictions is necessary to more accurately account for the headway made thus far in reversing mass incarceration.

To accomplish this goal, this report proposes a wider set of metrics by which to analyze incarceration trends to supplement the old standard of state prison population: 1) prison admissions; 2) jail admissions, 3) pretrial jail populations and 4) sentenced jail populations.  When considered together, this combination of metrics better captures the complexity of contemporary incarceration trends at the state and local level, makes the patterns that underlie national statistics discernable, and provides a starting point for deeper investigation into the particular context of individual counties’ justice systems....

As this report will discuss, studying all the moving parts of the incarceration system reveals a more messy truth: that there is no single way to characterize the current state of mass incarceration. A single trend of unified growth across states and counties, and in both prison and jail incarceration, characterized mass incarceration’s rise. But that has fragmented into four distinct incarceration trends, depending on how and where incarceration is measured:

  • some jurisdictions have seen meaningful overall declines in both prison and jail incarceration; 
  • others have seen stagnation at high incarceration rates; 
  • still others have seen shifts between prisons and jails in place of real reductions to the footprint of incarceration; and 
  • some have seen unchecked growth.
Ultimately, unwinding mass incarceration will require the particular alchemy of data-driven policy and political will, sustained by pressure from grassroots advocates and litigation. But only by acknowledging the realities in thousands of jurisdictions across the country can researchers, policymakers, and the public identify where reform is still only a promise and target attention and resources to drive change. Without understanding how local jail populations and county-level prison admissions have evolved over time, it will be difficult to have a real sense of how state and local systems are interacting, which problems to solve, or if progress is being made at all.

This new Mother Jones article about this new Vera report sums up its takeway via its extended headline: "The Era of Mass Incarceration Isn’t Over. This New Report Shows Why. 'Mass incarceration has a different face.'"

June 14, 2018 at 08:34 AM | Permalink

Comments

I estimate based on reports by legal historians that the state prison population in 1800 was about 1,000. According to the US Census it had grown to 30,000 in 1870 a growth factor of 30 when the population growth factor was 6.7. Between 1870 and 1970 the incarceration rate increased from 60 to 89 so the rate increased faster than the population but not by a large factor. Between 1970 and 2007 the incarceration rate increased by a factor of 5.1 when the US population was increasing by a factor of 1.4.

The results since then are mixed some states are seeing increases in prison population, others have not seen much change and other states have seen a decrease in prison population that is offset by an increase in their jail population. My review of the historical records suggests that it difficult to reduce the population of a prison. "If you build it they will fill it." is more than a slogan. Unless we start to close prisons my expectation is were are at the new normal.

Posted by: John Neff | Jun 14, 2018 3:26:07 PM

The trendy words metrics, and optics are really annoying. Stop using them. They mean, numbers and appearances.

They are still less annoying than the false piety of using the feminine pronoun to refer to criminals. 95% of criminals are male. Only feminist male running dogs use the feminine pronoun to refer to defendants.

Posted by: David Behar | Jun 14, 2018 10:19:57 PM

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