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What Mass Incarceration Looks Like, State By State

The ACLU is releasing reports on what's driving mass incarceration in every state, and how to cut prison populations in each one.

BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS/NewscomBRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS/NewscomFor several years, the most ambitious goal among criminal justice reform advocates has been to reduce America's staggering and world-leading reliance on prisons and jails. On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released its first batch of reports on how to do exactly that in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The ACLU's Campaign For Smart Justice, along with the Urban Institute and the ACLU's state affiliates, published the first 25 of 51 "blueprints" identifying the drivers of mass incarceration in each state, as well as what policy changes could cut their prison populations by 50 percent.

"No matter what state you live in there is a mass incarceration crisis," says Udi Ofer, the director of the ACLU's Smart Justice campaign, "but the solutions have to be state-focused. That's the goal of these blueprints: to provide a state-by-state analysis of how each state can cut incarceration in half and combat racial disparities in incarceration."

One of the ongoing debates among criminal justice advocates is what exactly is responsible for the meteoric rise in prison populations since the 1970s. Michelle Alexander's influential The New Jim Crow popularized the idea that our prisons and jails are filled with nonviolent drug offenders. Other academics, such as Fordham Law School's John Pfaff, have pointed out that nonviolent drug offenders make up only about 16 percent of the overall prison population. Even if every nonviolent drug offender were released from prison tomorrow, it would only make a small dent in the estimated 1.9 million Americans serving time in prisons and jails. Ending mass incarceration, as it's popularly understood, would also require shortening sentences for violent crimes, a politically fraught enterprise.

"There's these national conversations about whether it's all about drugs or not all about drugs," Ofer says. "The truth is, it is and it isn't."

For example, according to the ACLU's report on Michigan, 74 percent of inmates are serving time for violent offenses, driven by the state's especially tough "truth in sentencing" laws, which largely abolished parole.

But in Oklahoma, which recently overtook Louisiana as the per capita incarceration leader in the U.S., "drug offenses are a leading driver of incarceration," Ofer says. "Thirty-two percent of all admissions to prisons are related to drugs. Three out of four people entering Oklahoma prisons have been sentenced to a drug, property, or other offense that did not involve violence."

Other states' incarceration rates are driven by so-called "three-strikes" laws, harsh mandatory minimums, habitual offender laws, or punitive bail practices, so there's no one-size-fits-all solution.

Each report also examines racial disparities in incarceration. Ofer says the ACLU and Urban Institute's research showed that, somewhat counterintuitively, reducing prison populations without addressing bias in enforcement can lead to an increase in racial disparities.

New Jersey has led the U.S. in decarceration, reducing its prison population by 35 percent since 1999. But it also leads the country in racial disparities in incarceration: Black residents make up 61 percent of the prison population, but are only 13 percent of the state population overall.

"Part of the reason we released these blueprints is to avoid another New Jersey," Ofer says.

In 2014, the ACLU launched its campaign to reduce incarceration in the U.S. by 50 percent by 2020, but progress has been slow and hard-won, even with tens of millions of dollars in funding. Ballot initiatives are expensive and difficult to sell to voters, and legislative reformers have had to negotiate with law enforcement groups, which tend to object to all but the most cosmetic changes to the status quo.

For example, despite a successful 2016 ballot initiative to reclassify drug possession and some other crimes as misdemeanors, Oklahoma's prison population is projected to keep rising.

"Those policy reforms absolutely led and will lead to thousands of fewer people going to prison for low-level offenses, but our blueprint shows our job is not done, and a lot more needs to happen."

Photo Credit: BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS/Newscom

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  • Shirley Knott||

    Make America Great Again — get it far far way from the #1 spot on the 'people imprisoned' lists.
    That would be a good start.

  • perlchpr||

    "Leader of the 'free' world"

  • Shirley Knott||

    Maybe someday, but not in what's left of my lifetime. sigh

  • DRM||

    If we released literally everybody in prison for "non-violent" crime (including every thief, fraudster, and drunk driver) and stopped incarcerating them at all, we'd still have a higher incarceration rate than every other developed country, and a rate third behind only Thailand and Russia for countries of over 10 million population.

    So, which violent criminals should we be releasing earlier to make your goal of getting "far far way" from the #1 spot? And are you volunteering to live near them?

  • John||

    Ending mass incarceration, as it's popularly understood, would also require shortening sentences for violent crimes, a politically fraught enterprise.

    Perhaps it is politically fraught for good reason? To the extent that we have lots of violent criminals in our prisons, the problem is not that we are locking too many people up. The problem is that we have a society that seems to produce a lot of violent criminals. Letting said violent criminals out of prison won't solve that problem and will likely make it worse.

    Reason seems incapable of understanding that some people are in prison because they belong there. You want to get rid of the drug laws and stop throwing people in prison for years for victimless crimes? Sure. But if your plan is to just stop putting people in prison no matter what they do, I will pass.

    And for the record, someone stealing your identity and taking everything you own is, strictly speaking, a "nonviolent" offender. The problem isn't people in prison for nonviolent crimes. Lots of really serious and harmful crimes do not involve violence. The problem is people going to prison for "victimless crimes". Reason needs to stop lumping serious and real but nonviolent crimes into the same category as victimless and thus unjust crimes.

  • Sigivald||

    Yeah, maybe the US has more incarceration than other countries because it has different people in it, as much as anything else.

    (And I say this as someone who wants a lot fewer laws, and fewer people in prisons.

    But let's not pretend that the Right Number Of Jailed People Is Obviously Zero or anything like that, or that All Countries Are The Same, or that Americans Obviously Ought To Be Jailed At The Same Rates As Other Countries' People Because Shut Up.)

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    The problem is people going to prison for "victimless crimes". Reason needs to stop lumping serious and real but nonviolent crimes into the same category as victimless and thus unjust crimes.

    In the attempt to "decarcerate Washington", auto-theft is borderline legal.

    For police, frustration lies with the justice system's revolving door. People who've racked up five, six, seven or more vehicle thefts are released on relatively low bonds, in part because their alleged crimes are nonviolent. Then they're re-arrested again before the other charges are resolved, yet might not serve additional time for the subsequent crimes.

    there's a balance somewhere here and we have evidence that if you take the accountability out of a certain crime because it's non-violent, you simply get a metric shit-ton of that crime.

    I certainly don't have the answers, but you might end up with some nasty unintended consequences when you start making non-violent crimes an easy-out.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    there's a balance somewhere here and we have evidence that if you take the accountability out of a certain crime because it's non-violent

    I should really have just said, "when you take accountability out of a certain crime" without the 'nonviolent' addendum. See: Police shootings of unarmed people.

  • John||

    I would think that Libertarians of all people would take property theft seriously. What good are "property rights" if the government isn't going to punish someone who steals your property? Theft laws are the bedrock of all property rights. But somehow the dipshit, millennial Cosmotarians of reason have convinced themselves that putting car thieves in prison is the same as putting drug users there.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    For example, despite a successful 2016 ballot initiative to reclassify drug possession and some other crimes as misdemeanors, Oklahoma's prison population is projected to keep rising.

    That's interesting and may suggest that the prison population wasn't rising because of drug possession and these 'other crimes'.

  • John||

    Perhaps. I think it is also possible that people who get busted for drug possession are generally too irresponsible to live by the terms of their probation or parole. So, what starts as a misdemeanor ends up as a probation or parole violation and the person right back in prison.

    The deeper issue is that prison really doesn't work very well as a means of reform or even deterrence. I would argue that we would be better off going back to forms of corporal punishment for many crimes. It would be much cheaper and likely a more effective deterrent and certainly no worse than prison. Prison should be reserved for people who have committed serious enough crimes that they can no longer be trusted to remain free.

  • perlchpr||

    Prison should be reserved for people who have committed serious enough crimes that they can no longer be trusted to remain free.

    I know, right? That shit's expensive, and I don't want to pay for more of it than I have to.

    Paying to incarcerate potheads who would otherwise keep pulling their shift at the 7-11 and paying their own rent is not my idea of a good use of my funds.

  • mig0||

    >But in Oklahoma, which recently overtook Louisiana as the per capita incarceration leader in the U.S., "drug offenses are a leading driver of incarceration," Ofer says. "Thirty-two percent of all admissions to prisons are related to drugs.

    32% doesn't sound like a "leading driver" of incarceration... it might be a plurality perhaps but 68% of offenders are not related to drugs.

    >Three out of four people entering Oklahoma prisons have been sentenced to a drug, property, or other offense that did not involve violence."

    Well that would mean 43%, roughly are sentenced due to property or "other offense". What are those and whats the breakdown?

  • jdgalt1||

    Objecting to racial disparities in incarceration means demanding disparate treatment for the same crime. That's racism.

  • Irvin Waller||

    The most cost effective and popular solutions to violence and mass incarceration lie outside criminal justice. Solid science of violence prevention confirms that every state could reduce violent crime by 50% by 2025. 50% less violent crime equals 50% less overpolicing and incarceration. These results are achievable, affordable and feasible for the equivalent of 10% of what state spends on reacting to crime. See http://bit.ly/1av9GHF. Smartoncrime investments help youth flourish through youth services, family and parenting, life skills and more and so stop homicides, rapes and violent crime. They require permanent violence prevention board, comprehensive planning (see Glasgow model) as well as adequate and sustained funding.

  • Wise Old Fool||

    Cops are obsessed with jailing people but not taking on the responsibility that they accepted and get paid for. They kill another innocent: https://goo.gl/M29NKq

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