Is LA or OK the U.S. Prison Capital? It’s a Close Call

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Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards has been saying that his state lost its title as the nation’s incarceration capital after changes he backed were passed by the state legislature in 2017. A new report from the Vera Institute of Justice called that victory into question. Vera concluded that Louisiana still was at the top of the list at the end of 2018, five months after the governor announced the state had lost that title to Oklahoma, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports. The discrepancy appears to be not so much about Louisiana’s prison population, but how prisoners in Oklahoma are counted.

Those who believe Oklahoma has the highest rate count hundreds of people who have been sentenced to prison time — but are still in county jails and haven’t become part of the prison system officially yet — as part of that state’s prison population. Without those inmates included in the prison population count, Louisiana still has the highest incarceration rate. As of the end of December, the number of people waiting to enter the Oklahoma prison system at county jails totaled 753. If they’re included in the state count, Oklahoma’s incarceration rate is 702 people per 100,000 residents, higher than Louisiana’s rate of 695. If they aren’t included, Oklahoma’s incarceration rate is 683. Pew Charitable Trusts and the Edwards administration use the higher Oklahoma count, therefore concluding that Louisiana has fallen to second place. Vera Institute used the lower count. “It seems like right now, the two states are really close. If a statistician was handling this question, they would say something like they are tied,” said Vera’s Jacob Kang-Brown. Whether Louisiana had the highest incarceration rate or not, its prison population is trending downward while Oklahoma’s is rising. Louisiana has seen a 15.6 percent drop in state inmates over the past eight years, while Oklahoma has seen a 9.3 percent increase.

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