At ‘Critical Moment’ Under Trump, Report Gives Hard Facts on Incarceration

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Photo by Matt Mechtley via Flickr

With a gimlet eye trained on the Trump administration’s emerging criminal justice strategies, the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) today released its annual headcount and analysis of the 2.3 million people held in America’s “byzantine” incarceration complex.

Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy say their report, “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017,” comes as the country’s criminal justice system stands at “a critical moment.”

“The new administration has taken aim at the past decade’s advances toward criminal justice reform, and has a troubling reliance on ‘alternative facts’ to support its agenda,” they write.

“While the White House is moving away from criminal justice reform, The Whole Pie offers the reassuring reminder that the bulk of incarceration flows directly from the policy choices made by state and local, ­ not federal, ­ governments.”

Bernadette Rabuy. Photo courtesy PPI

Since 2014, the nonpartisan, Massachusetts-based nonprofit has published annual graphic portraits of government data showing how many are locked up, where, and why. The goal is “to provide policymakers and the public a clear and accurate big picture view of punishment in the U.S.,” according to the authors.

The new count says state prisons hold 1.33 million people, 58 percent of the national incarceration total. Local jails are second at 630,000, federal prisons 197,000, territorial prisons 14,000, and juvenile facilities 34,000.

The 2.3 million total incarcerated population is unchanged from last year.

Peter Wagner. Photo Courtesy PPI

“The biggest changes are in the smallest slices,” Wagner told The Crime Report.

For example, the federal prison population is declining, while immigration detention is surging. But those two figures combine for just one-tenth of the overall incarceration population, which is unchanged over last year.

Other key findings: [See also table below]

  • Some 57,000 people are locked up for criminal or civil immigration offenses, including 16,000 in federal prisons and 41,000 in other forms of detention. Those numbers are up about 10 percent from PPI’s 2016 count.
  • Although local jails attract meager attention, they are the invisible giant of the incarceration industry, with 11 million individual jailings per year, many of them brief.
  • Virtually all growth in jail incarceration over the past 15 years has come in pre-trial detention. At any given time, just three out of 10 people held in local jails are serving time for a conviction.
  • Despite the country’s increasing focus on narcotics use as a health rather than crime problem, American law enforcers continue to arrest more than 1 million people a year for drug possession.
  • Data suggests that mass incarceration reforms hinge largely on rethinking violent-crime sentences. Just 46,000 of the 1.33 million people in state prisons are serving time for drug possession, compared with 704,000 for violent crime.
  • Some 7,200 juveniles are locked up for non-criminal offenses, including 6,600 for “technical violations” of probation and 600 for “status” offenses, “such as running away, truancy, and incorrigibility.”

Table showing the breakdown of America’s incarcerated populations. (Courtesy PPI)

Citing Trump’s “law-and-order bombast,” Nkechi Taifa, criminal justice advocacy director for the Open Society Policy Center, says, “The handwriting is on the wall that we will likely see a return to the flawed policies of the past which resulted in the current era of mass incarceration.”

Nkechi Taifa. Photo courtesy Open Society Foundations.

“Contrary to some views,” Taifa told The Crime Report, “criminal justice policy reform at the federal level remains pertinent, despite an administration and Congress seemingly hostile to reform.

“It is incumbent that the progressive voice in federal criminal justice is principled, valued and strong, that we protect the gains previously made, and engage in defensive strategies that make it more difficult for harmful policies to pass.”

Last week, Sessions ordered the country’s 94 U.S. attorney’s offices to partner with local and state prosecutors “to investigate, prosecute and deter the most violent offenders.”

His directive, dated March 8, declared: “To accomplish this goal, in all cases, federal prosecutors should coordinate with state and local counterparts to identify the venue (federal or state) that best ensures an immediate and appropriate penalty for these violent offenders.”

Some see that as federal encroachment.

“An expanded federal criminal justice agenda comprised of federal-state-local task forces targeting violent offenses and coupled with tougher federal sentences would be a substantial change in practice and a step in the wrong direction,” says Ryan King, senior fellow at the Urban Institute Justice Policy Center.

He says a renewed federal push for draconian sentences could quickly reverse prison population declines.

Ryan King. Photo Courtesy Urban Institute

“Last time I checked,” King told The Crime Report, “the states did not seem to have trouble prosecuting and incarcerating people for violent crime for very long prison terms. I’m just not seeing the need to expand the role of the federal system to pursue violent crime more aggressively.”

According to the new Prison Policy Initiative tally, 50 percent of the 197,000 federal prison inmates were convicted on narcotics offenses. Violent-crime convictions account for just 7 percent of the federal total.

By contrast, 16 percent of those in state prisons and 26 percent of convicts in local jails are confined on drug offenses. Overall, one of every five incarcerated persons in the country are locked up for drugs.

“Looking at the big picture requires us to ask if it really makes sense to lock up 2.3 million people on any given day, giving this nation the dubious distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world,” Wagner and Rabuy write.

“Both policymakers and the public have the responsibility to carefully consider each individual slice in turn to ask whether legitimate social goals are served by putting each category behind bars, and whether any benefit really outweighs the social and fiscal costs.”

Taifa says that while she hopes for passage of the bipartisan sentencing-reform legislation that is stalled in Congress, she fears Trump will steer Republicans toward more 1980s-style mandatory sentences, aggressive policing, and increased use of capital punishment. And King says a best-case scenario might be to simply maintain the sentencing reform status quo under Trump.

“While there does still appear to be support for federal criminal justice reform by many members of Congress, it is hard to imagine anything significant being accomplished in terms of sentencing reform,” he says.

But the federal influence on criminal justice goes much deeper.

King notes the leadership role Washington has assumed in promoting rational reforms–after decades in which policies and laws seemed driven by crime aberrations.

“The DOJ under the Obama administration invested heavily in technical assistance and research that supported smart, data-driven, and evidence-based policies at the state and local level,” he says.

These innovations have prompted “a culture change where success is increasingly not measured by rates of conviction and incarceration alone,” King adds.

He says it is a telling sign that while Trump and Sessions hector from their gloomy perspective of violence run amok, “The states are still lining up for this support.”

King says, “There remains an appetite for smarter criminal justice policies that protect public safety while also preserving the dignity of the individuals in the system, their families, and their communities.”

David J. Krajicek (@djkrajicek) is a contributing editor of TCR. He welcomes comments from readers.

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