How America’s major urban centers compare on incarceration rates

An index of the incarceration rates of the most populous counties in 39 states.

by Emily Widra, March 28, 2019

How has mass incarceration impacted the city you live in? This question frequently drives our readers to ask about the incarceration rates of specific cities. Because of the decentralized nature of criminal justice data, drilling down to the city level is difficult-to-impossible, but now you can calculate the prison (but not jail) incarceration rate of a city’s surrounding county using the Vera Institute’s Incarceration Trends Database. Using that tool, we calculated the imprisonment rates of the most populous counties in 39 states (all those where data were available) – and uncovered a few surprises.

Rates are per every 100,000 residents. In its Incarceration Trends tool, the Vera Institute presents rates for counties per every 100,000 residents aged 15-64; we calculated the rates using the total populations in their downloadable dataset to make them comparable with the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ total state incarceration rates. (BJS state incarceration rates are for the jurisdictional population sentenced to greater than 1 year.)
State Most Populous County Associated City County Residents in State Prisons: Rate per 100,000 residents Total State Prison Incarceration: Rate per 100,000 residents
Okla. Oklahoma County Oklahoma City 937 703
Pa. Philadelphia County Philadelphia 897 387
Wis. Milwaukee County Milwaukee 812 372
Mich. Wayne County Detroit 737 430

Ariz. Maricopa County Phoenix 666 600
Ala. Jefferson County Birmingham 627 613
Ohio Cuyahoga County Cleveland 627 444
Ind. Marion County Indianapolis 596 413
Texas Harris County Houston 574 572
Tenn. Shelby County Memphis 564 427
Colo. Denver County Denver 551 367
Iowa Polk County Des Moines 526 282
Ga. Fulton County Atlanta 508 506
Miss. Hinds County Jackson 502 609
Ill. Cook County Chicago 464 378
Ky. Jefferson County Louisville 453 490
Nev. Clark County Las Vegas 451 448
S.D. Minnehaha County Sioux Falls 443 423
Calif. Los Angeles County Los Angeles 427 330
S.C. Greenville County Greenville 416 416
Ore. Multnomah County Portland 401 379
Wyo. Laramie County Cheyenne 336 408
Neb. Douglas County Omaha 336 280
W. Va. Kanawha County Charleston 335 372
Hawaii Honolulu County Honolulu 326 263
Mo. St. Louis County St. Louis 304 531
Fla. Miami-Dade County Miami 301 500
N.C. Mecklenburg County Charlotte 273 354
N.Y. New York County New York City 262 261
Minn. Hennepin County Minneapolis 211 197
Utah Salt Lake County Salt Lake City 207 217
N.H. Hillsborough County Manchester and Nashua 186 218
Wash. King County Seattle 167 256
N.D. Cass County Fargo 157 236
Maine Cumberland County Portland 139 132
Va. Fairfax County Washington DC suburbs 118 448
Md. Montgomery County Washington DC suburbs 117 354
N.J. Bergen County Hackensack 92 229
Mass. Middlesex County Boston 81 132

With many large cities currently making criminal justice reform a priority – and with the highest rates of incarceration now in small cities and towns – you might expect large cities to be less punitive than the states they belong to. But 14 counties I evaluated (such as Philadelphia County and Los Angeles County) still have disproportionately high prison incarceration rates compared to the rest of their states. And only 13 of the counties I evaluated had incarceration rates significantly (that is, more than 10%) lower than the states they belong to.

You might also wonder: How does my city compare to other cities on incarceration? For the most part, cities in famously punitive states tend to be punitive compared to other cities. But there are some notable exceptions. For instance, while Missouri and Florida have some of the highest state rates of incarceration, St. Louis County and Miami-Dade County not only have lower rates than their states do; they have lower rates than most other urban areas nationwide.

Likewise, a few states that have relatively low incarceration rates should note that their major cities tell a wildly different story. Colorado, Michigan and Iowa have lower incarceration rates than many states, but the counties containing their major cities – Denver, Detroit and Des Moines, respectively – have some of the highest incarceration rates of all the urban areas I evaluated. These counties send disproportionately high numbers of people to prison.

So why do most of these counties differ significantly from the states they’re located in when it comes to incarceration? Clearly, local incarceration rates are impacted by much more than sentencing laws and other factors determined at the state level.

To state the obvious, cities and towns vary widely in their levels of poverty and in the quality of their social services (such as education, drug treatment and health care), both of which impact crime. But other factors matter too. Police departments and prosecutors differ in how aggressively they target crime, especially low-level crime. Cities and towns that invest in diversion programs for veterans, people with mental illness, and people with a substance use disorder may send fewer people to prison than areas without the same community services. The same is true for states with well-funded public defenders’ offices. And the availability of reentry services (like affordable housing), as well as the punitiveness of the community, affects the likelihood that a city’s formerly incarcerated people will be sent back to prison.

Given the wide variation among cities and towns, it’s clear that incarceration rates are just the beginning of any local analysis. If you’re curious to learn more about your city or state, check out Vera’s database, our extensive Research Library, and our state profiles.

Emily Widra is a Research Analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)

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