« "Crime, quarantine, and the U.S. coronavirus pandemic" | Main | Senator Cotton: "our severe federal drug sentences are ineffectual, so let's not try to reform them" »

September 20, 2021

Notable accounting of a decade of decarceration via Decennial Census

The Marshall Project has this notable new piece fully headlined "There Are Fewer People Behind Bars Now Than 10 Years Ago. Will It Last?: Census data show incarceration rates are down. It may have more to do with the pandemic than broad reforms."  The piece highlights census data that ought to be encouraging to those troubled by modern mass incarceration, but also notes why April 2020 incarceration data may not reflect persistent realities.  I recommend the piece in full, in part because it enables drilling down into a lot of great data, and here are excerpts:

Nearly two million adults were incarcerated across the country, according to the 2020 Decennial Census.  The latest figures show a 13% drop in the total number of incarcerated people, or nearly 300,000 fewer people, compared with the 2010 Census.  Roughly one-third of the drop in total numbers occurred in just two populous states — California and New York.  In total, 41 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico saw reductions in the total number of incarcerated people.

In five states, the number of incarcerated people actually increased compared with a decade ago, but the incarceration rate still shrank because their total population grew more quickly than the prison population. Just four states — West Virginia, Alaska, Nebraska and Arkansas — saw their incarceration rate increase.

The Decennial Census offers a comprehensive and geographically granular look at the U.S. population by attempting to collect information about where everyone lives as of April 1.  By definition though, it is a snapshot of a brief moment in time, which is a limitation in trying to capture fluctuating numbers.

If the Census was held later in the year, for example, it might have shown a more substantial drop.  The Marshall Project’s COVID-19 tracker showed state and federal prisons had 100,000 fewer prisoners in June 2020 than in April, when the census was taken.  Another study estimated that from mid-year 2019 to mid-year 2020, county jails nationwide had 185,000 fewer people.

Experts say that a combination of factors contributed to this decrease: The court system and parole offices slowed down as they moved operations online, which has reduced the number of people who were sentenced or caught up in parole violations.  In many jurisdictions, police departments also cut back on proactive tactics, such as traffic stops, and the number of drug crimes dropped significantly.  Some prison and jail officials also rushed to empty out facilities to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks.

Broadly, these numbers have already started to tick back up as criminal courts begin to reopen and the criminal justice system is returning to normal, according to a recent report from the Vera Institute of Criminal Justice.  Given how unstable incarceration rates have been since the start of the pandemic — which overlapped with the entire period of census data collection — it may be impossible to draw any long-term conclusions from the apparent drop seen in Census data....

In most states, the raw numbers of incarcerated people didn’t change much, despite widespread efforts to decarcerate prisons and jails during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Instead, a few populous states lost a larger share.  For example, California’s incarcerated population shrunk by 50,000, and New York’s by 30,000.  Together, they account for approximately one-third of the national decrease in incarcerated population, while representing less than one-fifth of the country’s population.  Nine states saw an increase in the incarcerated population.

The incarceration rate provides another perspective.  Many southern states with slightly higher incarcerated populations also saw the fastest population increase in the past ten years. Because the number of people in these states grew faster than the number of incarcerated people, their incarceration rates still went down.

September 20, 2021 at 08:22 AM | Permalink

Comments

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB