Why Decarceration Still Eludes Prison Reformers

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The number of people confined in prison has been in incremental decline for the last 10 years, but mass incarceration is far from over, according to a new report by the Vera Institute of Justice.

“The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration,” released Thursday, unpacks the perception that the country has reached an age of decarceration and explores the complex relationship between local jails and state prisons to illuminate where decarceration has happened─and where true change has eluded reformers.

Between 2013 and 2015, at least 286 bills, executive orders, and ballot initiatives targeting sentencing or corrections reform were adopted across 46 states. But whether reform has had its intended effect is complicated.

According to the report, written by Jacob Kang-Brown, Oliver Hinds, Jasmine Heiss, and Olive Lu, and released through the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, the single trend of carceral growth has fragmented since the turn of the century into distinct trends that vary from state to state and county to county.

As a result, using state-prison populations as the metric for incarceration has become obsolete.

The prison population is a misleading measure for a number of reasons. First, it is slow to respond to changes in policy, because many individuals in prison are serving multiyear sentences. Second, as an aggregate measure, it can obscure important county-to-county differences. Third, it entirely overlooks the population held in jails, a problem given that jail and prison trends do not necessarily move in the same direction, and may move at different paces even when they do.

In response, the report’s authors advocate using a wider set of metrics in addition to state prison populations to identify incarceration trends: jail admissions, pretrial jail population, sentenced jail population, and prison admissions.

Jail admission, or the count of people sent to jail in a given year, provides the best estimate of how many people are directly impacted by local incarceration.

The pretrial population, or the number of people held in jail awaiting the resolution of their charges, is easily comparable across counties and states and is important to understanding the effects of incarceration on people even when they are not ultimately convicted of any crime.

Tracking changes in the sentenced population alongside changes in the prison population yields a useful measure of when a state shifts individuals between prisons and jails rather than reducing the total number of individuals incarcerated.

Finally, prison admissions are a more responsive indicator than prison population of whether a policy, legislative, or practice change has had an effect on prison incarceration.

Using these standards, the report identifies a number of notable trends in recent incarceration.

While smaller towns exhibit continual growth in their incarceration rates, the most populous cities are sending fewer and fewer people to prison. This pattern cuts across political lines: “blue” states such as New York have seen decarceration driven by their largest cities, but so have “red” states that include Texas and Missouri.

In certain states, each of the aforementioned metrics is relatively flat. In these places, stagnation can mean different things, as a county-by-county analysis reveals. Virginia, for instance, has seen the growth in prison admissions in rural areas and the decline in urban ones, generating what appears to be a stagnant pattern.

The report also uses multi-metric analysis to identify games of carceral “hot potato” between jails and prisons in certain states. States are incentivized to shift prison populations to jails by reclassifying former felonies as misdemeanors, thereby giving the appearance of reducing incarceration without actually changing the number of people locked up.

Counties, meanwhile, have a financial incentive to send more people to prison rather than jail so that they do not foot the bill for local custody.

Understanding these and other patterns in mass incarceration requires multiple measures and a resistance to aggregation: national and even state trends can obscure important shifts on a local level.

Although “The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration” undercuts the optimistic claim that the U.S. incarceration rate has leveled off, “the aim of this report is not to throw cold water on reform, but rather to add fuel to the fire,” writes Christian Henrichson, Research Director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections.

“With this information, researchers can evaluate how a state uses incarceration in a way that is sensitive and responsive to state and local policy shifts, and policymakers and advocates can better craft─and adjust─strategic, targeted reforms that will safeguard progress and truly undo the nation’s collective overreliance on incarceration.”

Elena Schwartz is a TCR news intern. She welcomes comments from readers.

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