The Great Lockup Divide


The latest information from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR)— the leading crime and prison data sources for the country—shows that locking more people up does not lead to safer communities.

The Justice Policy Institute (JPI) compared the UCR crime rate and the BJS incarceration rate from 2002 and 2012. The data reveals a nation divided.

The 2012 data was released in the summer and fall of 2013. Twenty four states experienced falling crime and incarceration rates, while twenty three states experienced rising incarceration rates and falling crime rates. Only three states experienced rises in both (including West Virginia, which coupled a 7 percent increase in crime with a 51 percent increase in its incarceration rate).

Some numbers stand out as signs that states can opt for smarter and safer justice policies:

  • Many states that saw falling incarceration rates saw large drops in crime: the ten states that decreased their incarceration rate by 10 percent or more saw crime drop at an average rate of 24.1 percent,
  • States that increased their incarceration rate saw much smaller drops in crime: the fifteen states that increased their incarceration rate by 10 percent or more saw, on average, only an accompanying, 12.8 percent drop in crime, much lower than the national average, 20.26 percent, decrease in crime for the same period.

As JPI reported in Tipping Point, published in 2005, “serious questions are now arising over whether additional incarceration is helpful, or perhaps actually harmful. Contemporary criminological scholarship suggests that excessive incarceration may decrease safety in communities and diminish the ability of residents to protect themselves.”

Further, data from Maryland demonstrates that policy-driven decreases in prison populations and the preservation of public safety are compatible. After JPI told the story of how crime went up in Maryland neighborhoods that saw more incarceration, policing and justice involvement, across the state line in the Commonwealth of Virginia, incarceration hasn't meant safer communities.

The data shows that Virginia experienced a 25 percent drop in crime, and 2 percent drop in its incarceration rate. Other Southern states saw a much bigger drop in incarceration, and a drop in crime.

South Carolina, whose crime and incarceration rates both fell by 17 percent, professionalized its parole board and adopted a risk and needs assessment for release decisions. In 2007, Texas reprioritized its corrections budget and allocated money to alternatives to incarceration like residential and non-residential mental health and substance-abuse treatment programs. Between 2002 and 2012, Texas's crime rate dropped by 27 percent and its incarceration rate fell 13 percent.

JPI's report Virginia's Justice System: Expensive, Ineffective, and Unfair, as well as its follow up study, Billion Dollar Divide, recommends that states like Virginia follow the lead of these other Southern states, and reconsider and review their sentencing laws, practices and policies, reduce the collateral consequences of criminal convictions and introduce more effective public safety and drug policies. Such steps can and should be taken by the states whose incarceration rate has increased or only minimally declined over the past decade.

D.C.'s youth justice system is another example of how reducing reliance on incarceration and having more people in the community doesn't mean less safe communities. Over the past decade, D.C. has reduced the number of young people incarcerated pretrial and in its secure post-adjudication facilities. During the same time, more and more young people once destined to be locked up were being served in the community.

While all this was happening, Washington, D.C. saw a decline in youth crime, and a decline in youth recidivism.

Many will argue that the decade-long trend of decarceration is merely recession-induced belt-tightening. Indeed, recent support for justice reform from conservative luminaries is largely motivated by that fiscal restraint.

However, analysis of certain states' falling incarceration rates provides evidence of additional, significant factors driving reform.

New York City combined decreasing rates of crime and felony arrests with increased use of non-prison sanctions in New York City courts. Unfortunately New York City has simultaneously experienced an explosion of arrests for misdemeanor offenses (see stop-and-frisk) that has led to highly justified criticisms of New York's criminal justice system.

A 2013 study by the Brennan Center argued that New York's prison population decline showed the key role played by local policing practices in the spread of mass incarceration.

This is echoed by JPI's report, Rethinking The Blues, which found that reforming police practices could prevent the growth of prison populations and keep communities safe. The results in New York are examples of the importance of combining policy changes on state and local levels.

Because California accounts for much of the widely reported decline in national prison populations over the past five years, any exuberance should be tempered. This preponderance of responsibility represents California's gradual response to a 2011 Supreme Court order to reduce its prison population, which was plagued by inhumane conditions brought on by overcrowding. The result has been California's policy of realignment, in which around one third of the population that made up the court-ordered reduction has been siphoned into county jails.

While realignment has expanded the opportunities for individuals to be paroled, released early, or transferred to more effective substance abuse treatment programs, it has also given rise to its own, unique problems. Most serious are the dramatic increases in jail populations statewide. These are facilities which are not equipped to house individuals with longer sentences and have recently been subject to overcrowding lawsuits of their own.

Reactions to realignment have been notably mixed, and increasingly, it has seemed the administrative equivalent of shoving belongings in the closet to avoid cleaning your room.

The country is split between states pursuing some level of justice system reform (or at least acknowledging the existence of effective, evidence-based alternatives) and states incarcerating blindly.

But the data is clear: keeping people in communities and out of prison does not mean less public safety. The declines in prison population in many states testify to some promising efforts to incorporate evidence-based practices and respond to increasing public support for justice reform

Marc Schindler is the Executive Director of the Justice Policy Institute, and formerly served between 2005-2010 as General Counsel, Chief of Staff and Interim Director of the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, the District's executive branch juvenile corrections agency. Jasper Burroughs is a Researcher with the Justice Policy Institute. He graduated with a degree in history from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. They welcome comment from readers.

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