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.
|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|
|Iowa||Polk County||Des Moines||526||282|
|Nev.||Clark County||Las Vegas||451||448|
|S.D.||Minnehaha County||Sioux Falls||443||423|
|Calif.||Los Angeles County||Los Angeles||427||330|
|W. Va.||Kanawha County||Charleston||335||372|
|Mo.||St. Louis County||St. Louis||304||531|
|N.Y.||New York County||New York City||262||261|
|Utah||Salt Lake County||Salt Lake City||207||217|
|N.H.||Hillsborough County||Manchester and Nashua||186||218|
|Va.||Fairfax County||Washington DC suburbs||118||448|
|Md.||Montgomery County||Washington DC suburbs||117||354|
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.