The numbers are still troubling.
Although America’s world-beating incarceration rates have begun to decline, soaring female jail populations and stark racial disparities in state prisons continue to present a formidable challenge to policymakers.
A new initiative examining jail and prison data in all 50 states, produced by the Vera Institute of Justice, shows that “progress to end mass incarceration has been uneven,” with smaller cities and rural countries showing sharp increases, even while the number of people sent behind bars from urban areas has dropped..
The evidence is on vivid display in a set of interactive maps and table mapping long-term trends in incarceration across the U.S. since 1980.
The report summarizes jail and prison data for each state, representing a different way of depicting the landscape of American incarceration. Combining the two data streams offers a new resource that the researchers say will be useful to decisionmakers, scholars and activists.
“Statistics on mass incarceration generally focus on prisons, but it is essential to consider how jails and prisons—and the policies that fill them—are deeply intertwined,” said Jasmine Heiss, campaign director of Vera’s “In Our Backyards” project, in a statement announcing the report.
On the macro level, prison reformers have noted with optimism that overall national incarceration rates have been declining since their peak a decade ago, The rate for jail incarceration dropped 12 percent between 2007 and 2017, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The total number of people in federal and state prisons dropped by 20,000 in 2018, representing a 1.8 percent decreased from the previous year—continuing a pattern of decline that has been evident since 2009, accord to a Vera report in April.
But the picture looks grimly different when incarceration patterns are broken down for each state and each county under the new Vera “Incarceration Trends” report.
“Incarceration is now most prevalent, on a per capita basis, in smaller cities and rural countries,” said Vera Research Director Christian Henrichson, in an analysis accompanying the report.
Henrichson noted that until the 1990s major cities were the main drivers of high incarceration rates, but now, “it is the smallest countries that have the highest rates of jail and prison incarceration.”
That point has been made previously by several research studies, but Vera adds graphic details to the trend in the form of a capsule four-page summaries for each state, that explore the changing gender and racial composition in the jail and prison systems, using a historic timeline beginning with the 1980s
Some of the more startling findings include:
- In Alaska, the number of women in jail has increased 3,250 percent since 1980, and the number of women in prison has risen by 756 percent;
- In Arizona, African Americans were jailed at 4.9 times the rate of white people, and Native Americans were jailed at 2.1 times the rate of whites;
- In Hawaii, the number of women in jail increased 1,941 percent since1980;
- In Kansas, African Americans constituted 21 percent of the jail population and 28 percent of the prison population, though they represented just 7 percent of state residents.
The report also ranked states among their immediate neighbors, in contrast to the traditional overall 50-state ranking.
“States vary widely on economic, social and political dimensions, so the most relevant comparisons are usually with neighboring states,” explained Henrichson.
“To be sure, policy goals should never be limited by one’s closest neighbors—but we find that when you look at the data from a more local perspective, it reveals differences that may go underappreciated in a 50-state framework.”
Vera’s interactive national and county map and the state fact sheets, along with its methodology, are accessible here.