Although the US prison population has declined over six years, after increasing for nearly four decades, a new analysis by researcher Malcolm C. Young, published by the Center for Community Alternatives, concludes that the nation is not reducing prison populations at a pace that would end mass incarceration in the foreseeable future.
A report issued in January by the Bureau of Justice Statistics of data through 2016 found that prison populations decreased in 33 states that year—more states than had experienced decreases in any recent year. The average decrease was three percent.
In 42 states, prison populations were lower than they had been recently. Just eight states increased their prison populations to record high numbers.
The downturn it documented, while perhaps marking the beginning of an end to three-and-a-half decades of increases, “is anemic to the point of listlessness,” says Young, a longtime advocate of cutting prison populations.
If the numbers of inmates continue to decrease only at the rate they did between 2014 and2016, there will still be more than a million people incarcerated in prison in 2042. The nation wouldn’t reach the goal of groups like #Cut50.org to reduce prison populations to half of what they are today for another 50 years, until 2068.
Moreover, the current rate of decrease may not hold, according to Young.
The prospects for a more rapid de-incarceration are poor unless and until many more states use strategies that have been effective in the handful of states that are significantly reducing prison numbers, Young believes.
Only 13 states have significantly reduced their prison populations below the levels they were at the end of 2000. Seven of those 13 states accounted for most of the national inmate population drop.
California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York reduced their collective prison populations by 73,328 between 2000 and 2016, accounting for about two-thirds of the total by which all states reduced prison numbers.
Another 14 states have at times demonstrated a capacity for reducing prison populations.
The experiences in both sets of states show that reductions at rates of three to five percent annually, and even higher, are well within reach of governments motivated to act, Young writes.
The federal prison system, the nation’s largest, contributed to the national decrease. Its population at the end of 2016 was 13 percent under its highest point, in 2011.
Young found that prospects that most of the 13 states responsible for much of the national decrease will continue to reduce their prison populations are good.
For example, Massachusetts has the second-lowest incarceration rate in the nation (after Maine), and the Vera Institute of Justice predicts further decreases. New Jersey will likely continue to reduce its prison population as a result of pretrial reforms signed by Gov. Chris Christie that took effect last year.
In New York State, further decreases are likely if officials can encourage fewer prison commitments from areas outside of New York City.
On the other hand, California, which decreased its prison population by 40,926 in six years to comply with a US Supreme Court ruling, increased its prison population in 2016 by 0.9 percent. California corrections officials predict an annual 0.8 percent increase in coming years.
In Illinois, Gov. Bruce Rauner cut the prison population, incurring little opposition from the same Republicans who savaged his Democratic predecessor’s more modest efforts. Were he to lose his bid for reelection, it is not a given that a Democratic administration would carry his plan forward.
Since 2010, Texas decreased its prison population by 6,749 (4.1 percent). Prospects that the trend will continue are iffy because state legislators have been considering new sentencing enhancements.
Young found that decreases in the 14 states that have demonstrated a capacity to reduce prison populations have been “episodic.” Recently enacted reforms have encountered opposition.
In Louisiana, advocates have been concerned that legislators will roll back recently enacted reforms designed to reduce incarceration. In Utah, reforms that relied on treatment and housing programs are at risk because of a lack of funding for alternative programs. In Florida, legislative reforms have not led to the reductions in prison populations for which advocates hoped.
In the federal system, prospects for continued decreases are fading. A bipartisan reform bill that would have reduced some federal sentences seems stalled, while prosecutorial and sentencing policies announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions will soon add to the prison population.
Young’s report identifies a third group of 23 states that have yet to demonstrate a capacity to reduce prison populations. At the end of 2016, their combined prison populations were 86,866, or 31 percent higher than at the end of 2000.
The report recognizes that new developments might bring significant reductions in prison numbers.
The election of reform prosecutors like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and Kimberly Foxx in Cook County, Illinois, signal a voter rejection of “tough on crime” and “lock-em-up” policies that have driven incarceration.
Another development lies in an emerging appreciation of the relationship between local jail incarceration and prison numbers by the MacArthur Foundation, which is funding local justice reform through its Safety and Justice Challenge. Were bail reform to spread, there would likely be a significant reduction in prison numbers as well as in jail counts.
Similarly, reforms in policing should reduce the use of jails and, indirectly, the number of people who are sentenced to prison.
The report concludes that if California and the federal system increase their prison populations, it will be difficult to sustain the current rate at which prison populations are decreasing.
Young calls for reexamining the effectiveness of prison-reduction strategies.
“[Hopes to] to end mass incarceration can’t be grounded in a fiction that an annual one percent reduction in prisoners will get us anywhere, or that limited successes in a few jurisdictions will end mass incarceration in the country as whole.”
His report contends that national, state and local officials should turn for guidance to states that have achieved significant, lasting reductions in prison incarceration and steer clear of approaches that have failed to produce results.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.