Over a decade ending in 2017, 34 states reduced both imprisonment and crime rates simultaneously, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University says in a new report.
The center contends that the data show “clearly that reducing mass incarceration does not come at the cost of public safety.” The total number of state prisoners dropped 6 percent over the same decade.
Northeastern states reported the largest average decline in imprisonment rate, 24 percent, with only Pennsylvania recording an increase, three percent. Rates of reported crime also dropped fastest in the northeast region, falling by about 30 percent on average.
Midwestern states reported imprisonment rates dropping by only one percent on average, driven by Michigan, with a 20 percent decrease. Reporting prisoner returns to custody down 41 percent since 2006, Michigan boasts one of the most comprehensive statewide reentry initiatives in the nation, Brennan says.
Massachusetts recorded the steepest decline in crime rate in the decade, 40 percent) while reducing the number of inmates convicted of non-violent drug crimes by 45 percent from 2008, cutting its overall imprisonment rate roughly in half.
Brennan said it is difficult to say why some states reduced their prison population while others failed. The report notes that more than half of the states where imprisonment rates grew had poverty rates above the national average. Those states were also hard hit by the opioid epidemic. In West Virginia, for example, crime rates dropped, but incarceration rose amidst the state’s struggles with opioid abuse and poverty.
Opioid addiction may explain why inmate totals did not fall in Rust Belt states. In 2017, Ohio and Pennsylvania experienced overdose death rates of 46 and 44 per 100,000, respectively. Both saw prison rates remain steady, as did nearby Kentucky, another state with high overdose deaths. Some other states struggling with addiction, such as Alaska, were able to cut their prison population.
Louisiana has tried to end its distinction of having the nation’s highest incarceration rate. Two years ago, Gov. John Edwards signed a package of criminal justice reform bills with the goal of reducing prison populations by 10 percent over 10 years. Still, Louisiana remains the nation’s leading incarcerator per capita, and the state’s crime rate also remains high.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists, and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.