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April 30, 2019

Spotlighting that, within top incarceration nation, it is not quite clear which state tops the per capital incarceration list

A helpful reader sent me this notable little local article headlined "Is Louisiana still the incarceration capital of the U.S.?". The piece serves as a useful reminder that data on incarceration (like data on just about everything in criminal justice systems) is subject to some interpretation. Here are excerpts:

For close to a year, Gov. John Bel Edwards has championed that Louisiana has lost its title as the incarceration capital of the United States after law changes he backed got through the Louisiana Legislature in 2017.  “I made a promise that, by the end of my first term, Louisiana would not have the highest incarceration rate in the nation,” Edwards said last June at a press conference.  “We have fulfilled that promise to Louisiana.”

Yet a report released by the Vera Institute of Justice last week [blogged here] called that victory into question.  The nonprofit, a leader in criminal justice research, concluded that Louisiana still had the top of incarceration rate in the country at the end of 2018, five months after the governor announced the state had lost that title to Oklahoma.

The discrepancy appears to be not so much about Louisiana’s prison population, but how prisoners in Oklahoma are counted.  Those who believe Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate count hundreds of people who have been sentenced to prison time -- but are still in county jails and haven’t become part of the prison system officially yet -- as part of that state’s prison population. Without those inmates included in the prison population count, Louisiana still has the highest incarceration rate.

As of the end of December 2018, the number of people waiting to enter the Oklahoma prison system at county jails totaled 753.  If they’re included in the state count, Oklahoma’s incarceration rate is 702 people per 100,000 residents, higher than Louisiana’s rate of 695. If they aren’t included, Oklahoma’s incarceration rate is 683.

Pew Charitable Trusts and the Edwards administration use the higher Oklahoma count, therefore concluding that Louisiana has fallen to second place. Vera Institute used the lower count. “It seems like right now, the two states are really close . If a statistician was handling this question, they would say something like they are tied,” Jacob Kang-Brown, one of the authors of the Vera Institute report, said in an interview Thursday (April 25)....

Another nonprofit organization, the Prison Policy Initiative, concluded that Oklahoma passed Louisiana as the state with the highest incarceration rate back in 2016, before Louisiana approved its package of criminal justice changes in 2017.  That analysis took a wider view of incarceration. It counted not just state prisoners but also juveniles in custody, people in local jails and people from Louisiana in federal custody.  That report came out last year, prompting the Tulsa World newspaper to declare Oklahoma the prison capital of the country.

April 30, 2019 at 09:13 AM | Permalink


The jail and prison systems in my home state, Kentucky, are a disaster and require serious reforms. While the average state saw its prison population fall by 8.5% in the last ten years, the number of state prisoners in Kentucky has risen by 11.3% in the last 10 years. Thousands of Class D (the lowest level) felons are serving sentences of up to 5 years in county jails (which have few programs and limited recreation opportunities) instead of state prisons. Ten years ago, 110 out of 120 Kentucky counties had jails; as of 2019, that number has dropped to 83. For most county Fiscal Courts in Kentucky, operating the local jail is their single largest expense. Many Kentucky jails are old and crumbling, but the counties can not afford to repair or replace hem, so they shut them down and send their inmates to jails in adjacent counties for a per diem charge. Kentucky needs to move to a system of regional jails, like West Virginia has

Posted by: James Gormley | May 1, 2019 8:26:35 AM

Few people today understand how the Kentucky Department of Corrections came to incarcerate thousands of Class D felons (serving sentences of up to 5 years) in local jails instead of state prisons. This deal arises from the settlement of a lawsuit that 110 county Judge-Executives brought more than 10 years ago against the Kentucky Department of Corrections and the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Under Kentucky law, the cost of holding pre-trial detainees (who can't post bond before trial) falls on the county and its jail. The day after a convicted defendant is sentenced, the cost of incarceration shifts to the state. But the counties realized that most Judges were awarding pre-sentencing jail credit against the sentence ultimately imposed, so Kentucky should have (for decades!) been reimbursing the counties and their jails for pre-sentencing incarceration because that time was eventaully being applied against their state sentences. For the 110 counties, this added up to more than $110 million per year in expenses. For five years, the Judge-Executives Association tried to negotiate some settlement of these claims with the Legislature, but they were rebuffed because Kentucky has insufficient tax revenues. The Judge-Executives filed a lawsuit in Franklin Circuit Court (the Kentucky capital is Frankfort, located in Franklin County), claiming they were owed $110 million per year for the past 10 years -- a total of $1.1 billion. The case was quickly and quietly settled, without Kentucky paying any money to the counties. Instead, Kentucky agreed to help the counties support their jails financially bu housing all Class D felons in (now 76) county jails instead of in state prisons, and to pay the jails a per diem for housing those inmates. Few understand how this came about, and it is a nightmare for Class D inmates, who get few programs and little recreation in those county jails. It also makes recidivism more likely upon release.

Posted by: James Gormley | May 1, 2019 8:39:49 AM

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