Why ‘Tweaking Around the Edges’ Won’t Reduce Mass Incarceration.
By Malcolm C. Young
Last month, both the Vera Institute of Justice and the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported declines in the number of individuals under the jurisdiction of state and federal prisons. Unfortunately, for anyone committed to ending mass incarceration, there can be little comfort in those numbers.
Vera’s People in Prison in 2018, a follow-up to People in Prison in 2017, documented a 1.3 percent decrease in state and federal prisoners in 2018, nearly double the 0.7 percent decrease among the states in 2017—bringing the total number of individuals under jurisdictional authority to 1,471,246.
A day after Vera’s release, BJS, which for decades provided a consistent annual analysis of state and federal prison populations, released its Bulletin, Prisoners in 2017. BJS’s count of state and federal prisons under corrections jurisdiction in 2017 differed by just -1,666 or -0.1 percent from the 1,491,029 reported by Vera for 2017. The counts were identical in 24 states, within a 2 percent margin in 19 states, and different by more than 2 percent in just seven states (Hawaii, Idaho, Maryland, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Vermont).
Although nearly two years after the fact, the BJS Bulletin provides the numbers and rates for sentenced prisoners as well as those under the jurisdiction of corrections authorities. It profiles prison populations by sex, race, for youth and assignment to private prison facilities among other variables.
We can therefore be confident in Vera’s methodology and its count for 2018.
Almost one year ago, I analyzed BJS data to conclude, first, that at the -1.4% average decrease over the most recent three years, 2014 to 2016, America’s prison population wouldn’t fall below one million until 2042. The U.S. wouldn’t reduce the number of prisoners by half, a goal of #cut50 and other advocacy organizations, for 50 years, or until 2068.
Mine was not the most pessimistic projection: The Sentencing Project estimated a 75-year wait before prison populations would be halved.
The rates of decrease in prison populations documented in Vera’s reports for 2017 and 2018, and in the string of comprehensive reports issued by the BJS up to and including 2017, are even less than the “anemic” -1.4 percent average annual decrease I described a year ago.
Their information affirms that we need to change our strategies and approach if we are to end mass incarceration in our lifetimes. Fortunately, the numbers in these reports describe successes to replicate as well as failures to avoid.
First of all, these reports show that while the majority of states slowed or stopped increasing prison populations in recent years, only a handful of states and, from 2012 to 2018, the federal system, succeeded in significantly decreasing prison populations. Between 2000 and 2016 just seven states (California, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Connecticut, Maryland and Illinois) were responsible for two-thirds of the collective decrease in state prison populations.
California alone, acting under orders from the U.S. Supreme Court, was responsible for almost one in three (29.6 percent) of the decreases in America’s prison populations in these years, under what has been called a “public safety realignment” strategy.
The majority of states are not significantly reducing prison populations. We should learn from and imitate the few that have been successful, noting from the start that several, like Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey, keep on reducing incarceration even though they use prison far less than most other states.