by Peter Wagner, August 10, 2015

With a growing number of presidential candidates calling for an
end to mass incarceration, there has been a flurry of discussions in the press about the role that the Executive Office can play in reversing our nation’s over-use of the criminal justice system. Since most incarcerated people are locked up in state prisons, people have been asking, what can the leader of the federal government do about mass incarceration?

While it turns out that the answer is “quite a bit,” these discussions have largely overlooked the powerful role that the federal budget plays in shaping state policy. Criminal justice policy is no exception. As Inimai Chettiar observed in the Brennan Center for Justice’s Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice:

The federal government has been one of the largest instigators of perverse incentives. For example, the 1994 Crime Bill included $9 billion to encourage states to drastically limit parole eligibility. Unsurprisingly, 20 states promptly enacted such laws, yielding a dramatic rise in incarceration. Today, the federal government continues to subsidize state and local criminal justice costs to the tune of $3.8 billion annually.

Given the federal government’s historical role in fueling mass incarceration, Chettiar points out, federal budgetmakers could switch gears to instead incentivize smarter and more measured criminal justice policymaking:

One basic, yet effective, step: The federal government should provide funds to states that cut both crime and imprisonment. California,
Texas, and other states succeeded by changing financial incentives. They
awarded additional funds to local probation departments that reduced
the number of people revoked to prison. In its first year alone, California
reduced revocations to prison by 23 percent, saving the state nearly $90
million. In one year, Texas reduced the number of people revoked to
prison by 12 percent. In both states, crime continued to drop.

To be sure, slowing and reversing the our nation’s unprecedented use of correctional control requires a multifaceted and long-term approach. But as the other 2016 candidates shape their criminal justice policy platforms, they shouldn’t underestimate the federal budget’s power to steer state justice policy in a positive direction.

by Rachel Gandy, August 7, 2015

In May 2014, the Prison Policy Initiative created incarceration profiles for each state, and the Texas statistics were shocking. They revealed a doubling of the Texas prison population in just a few years. As a native Texan, high imprisonment rates were no surprise, but the rapid rise in imprisonment seemed almost impossible, especially compared to the nation as a whole:

This graph shows that, beginning the early 1990s, the Texas imprisonment rate skyrocketed above the national imprisonment rate. Between 1993 and 1998, the national rate increased by only about 100 imprisoned people per 100,000 residents, but the Texas rate increased by over 300 imprisoned people per 100,000 residents.Throughout the 1980s, the Texas imprisonment rate closely matched the national imprisonment rate. But between 1993 and 1998, the Texas imprisonment rate almost doubled, causing Texas’ total custody population to quickly escalate.

The imprisonment rate in Texas has been generally equal to or higher than the national imprisonment rate. This fact was no surprise because Texas has been known for its tough-on-crime mentality. But what was so special about 1993 that caused the imprisonment rate in Texas to skyrocket?

The answer lies in the underlying mechanisms that drive prison admissions and releases. As Michele Deitch, a Soros Senior Justice Fellow and Texas criminal justice expert, describes, correctional facilities are like bathtubs: people are admitted to prisons like water from the faucet and released like water from the drain. If admissions and releases are not in balance, prisons, like bathtubs, will overflow.

To test that analogy and uncover the policy change that sent Texas’ imprisonment rate soaring, I collected annual data on admissions to and releases from Texas prisons and graphed them both against the total custody population:

This graph shows that when release counts are outnumbered by admission counts, the prison population will increase. In 1993, Texas’ releases fell sharply below admissions, causing the state’s total custody population to more than double in five years.Beginning in 1993, the number of releases from Texas prisons fell behind the number of admissions, allowing the state’s total custody population to rise sharply for the next five years. Once release counts rose again to match admission counts, Texas’ total custody population leveled off and remained stagnant. These patterns show that admissions to and releases from prisons serve as at least one driving force behind rapidly changing prison populations.

When Texas made the choice to reduce the rate of prison releases, the state prison population more than doubled in five years, just like a running bathtub would if a stopper were placed over the drain. More recently, other policy changes have allowed the number of releases to match the number of admissions, causing the total custody population to flatten out after its massive increase.

Before 1993, admission and release counts in Texas were roughly equal, so the total prison population grew only slightly. Driven by the War on Drugs, prison admission rates increased steadily in the 1980s, but they were closely matched by prison release rates. For example, incarcerated Texans in the early 1990s only served an average of 13% of their assessed sentences behind bars as a way to decrease rising prison overcrowding concerns.(*)

But the graph above shows that this pattern changed in 1993. Suddenly, the gap between the number of admissions to and releases from Texas prisons expanded.

Texas legislators created this imbalance by implementing two separate policy choices that joined together to catapult a seemingly overnight boom in the prison population. First, faced with lawsuits from county officials over jail overcrowding, Texas legislators approved the building of over 100,000 new prison beds within less than five years. Second, in response to public outrage over short prison stays, lawmakers passed legislation to ensure that incarcerated people served a greater proportion of their sentences behind bars. For example, some violent offenders were suddenly required to serve at least 50% of their sentences before they were parole eligible, which effectively doubled the length of prison time for many Texans.(**)

Legislators disregarded the need for balance between admissions to and releases from prison, and the bathtub overflowed. Over two decades later, Texans are still trying to clean up that mess. Sentencing and parole reforms have attempted to decrease the costs of the prison boom, but to truly make an impact on the size of the incarcerated population, policymakers need to understand one thing: prisons are like bathtubs. If you simultaneously open the faucet and cover the drain, you will create a flood.

Suggested reading:

  • Michele Deitch, “Giving Guidelines the Boot: The Texas Experience with Sentencing Reform,” Federal Sentencing Reporter 6, no. 3 (1993): 138-143.
  • To see reform efforts underway in Texas, see the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition’s website at
  • Notes:

    (*) Michele Deitch, “Giving Guidelines the Boot: The Texas Experience with Sentencing Reform,” Federal Sentencing Reporter 6, no. 3 (1993): 138-143.

    (**) Michele Deitch, “Giving Guidelines the Boot,” see footnote (*).

by Bernadette Rabuy, August 4, 2015

BJS mortality 2000-2013 report thumbnail

At this unique moment when the public is actually paying attention to local jails, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) has released a new report based on its Death in Custody Reporting Program showing that the number of people who died while under custody of state prisons and local jails increased for a third consecutive year and, especially troubling, that suicide in jails is a national crisis:

This graph shows that the rate of suicide in jails is out of step with the rate of suicide in state prisons and in the U.S. in general.

Every year since 2000, suicide has consistently been the leading cause of death in local jails. Overall in the last year, deaths by natural causes declined while unnatural — and presumably preventable — deaths increased. In 2013, over a third of all deaths in jails were suicides:

This graph shows that suicide has been the leading cause of death in jails from 2000-2013.

At the same time as the nation is paying attention to the story of Sandra Bland whose death in a Texas jail may or may not have been a suicide, the BJS data shows that sadly, suicide after the first few days of incarceration is common. Forty percent of people who commit suicide in jail do so within 7 days of admission.

The report underscores that while typically off the public’s radar, local jails should never be ignored. Beyond the fact that almost 12 million people cycle through jails each year, jails house many people who are legally innocent but are too poor to afford bail and those in great need of mental health services. In fact, Cook County, Illinois recently made headlines for doing the unusual: appointing a psychologist to run the county jail, which is actually one of the nation’s largest de facto mental health institutions.

The data also raises the question of whether jails are doing enough to provide adequate medical and mental health care at those high-risk moments when it is needed most. Some states know this is a problem. As Brandon Wood, director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, a state agency that has begun to track suicides in Texas jails, told the Houston Chronicle in its in-depth analysis of Texas jail suicides, “After reviewing deaths in custody over the last few years, we keep identifying lapses in observation and proper screening.”

The same BJS report also discusses the very different causes of death in state prisons. In 2013, more than half of deaths in prison were of incarcerated people age 55 or older. Suicide is much rarer, and illnesses are the major cause of death for the aging prison population:

This graph shows that, as opposed to jails, illnesses are the major cause of death for the aging state prison population.

While jails obviously need to address the alarming rate of suicides, the best solution to mortality in state prisons is sensible sentencing and parole reform.

The report can be found at

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