Briefing by Peter Wagner
May 28, 2014
Over the last three decades of the 20th century, the United States engaged in an unprecedented prison-building boom that has given our nation the highest incarceration rate in the world. Among people with experience in criminal justice policy matters, the “hockey stick curve” of the national incarceration rate is well known; but until now more detailed data on the incarceration rates for individual states has been harder to come by. This briefing fills the gap with a series of more than 100 graphs showing prison growth (and sometimes decline) for every state in the nation to encourage states to confront how their criminal policy choices undermine our national welfare.
Ending the U.S. experiment with mass incarceration requires us to focus on state policy because individual states are the most active incarcerating bodies in the nation:
Most (57%) people incarcerated in the United States have been convicted of violating state law and are imprisoned in a state prison. Another 30% are confined in local jails — which are outside the scope of this briefing — generally either for minor violations of state law or because they are waiting to be tried for charges of violating state law. Federal-level policy directly accounts for only the 10% of people behind bars in the U.S.; they have either been convicted of violating a federal law or are being detained by the immigration authorities and are awaiting potential deportation to anther country.1
In the aggregate, these state-level policy choices have been the largest driver of our unprecedented national experiment with mass incarceration, but not every state has contributed equally or consistently to this phenomenon. In the U.S., each state is responsible for making its own policy choices about which people to lock up and how for long. We can’t end our nation’s experiment with mass incarceration without grappling with the wide variety of state-level criminal justice policies, practices and trends.
Take, for example, the below comparison in Figure 2 of the incarceration rate for the United States (in yellow) with data from five individual states (in orange). We can see that Minnesota has long been less likely to incarcerate than other states, but also, like the country as a whole, markedly increased its use of imprisonment in the late 20th century. On the other extreme, Alabama and Louisiana have consistently maintained above-average rates of incarceration, and their use of the prison continues to grow.
But another, contrary, trend is visible in figure 2: the recent rapid decline of imprisonment in the populous states of New York (starting in 1999) and California (beginning in 2006 and accelerating in 2009). The number of people incarcerated in those two states is so large that prison population changes within those states are, in large part, responsible for the recent drop in the national incarceration rate. So, while the United States incarceration rate has dropped for four years in a row, over that same time period 15 states have made policy choices that increased their individual incarceration rates.2
Although individual state comparisons are probably the most informative, regional data reveal significant patterns as well. For example, the South has consistently had a higher rate of incarceration than the other regions of the United States:
All of the yearly variations in these graphs indicate one of two things: either a change in criminal justice policy or, less often, a change in data collection practices. As always, a comprehensive understanding of the larger political and social climate in any given state is key to successfully interpreting incarceration data. For example, the large drop in California’s prison population is the result of both an order from the U.S. Supreme Court to reduce unconstitutional overcrowding in state prisons and a legislative change that sends people who would previously have gone to state prison to local jails, which are both exempt from the Supreme Court’s order and not included in graphs like this one. To be sure, the California prison population drop is still notable because the state’s prison population is dropping faster than the jail population is increasing, but the actual decline in the number of people incarcerated in California is not as large or as quick as the Supreme Court ordered.3
During the early part of the national prison boom, all of the states walked lockstep together to increase their use of the prison. In the last decade, some individual states gradually started to reverse direction. As more states realized that mass criminalization is counterproductive, the aggregate national figures also reversed. Two decades ago, the idea of reducing any given state’s use of incarceration would have required a great deal of imagination. Today, we have the benefit of being able to compare states that have made dramatically different criminal justice policy choices.
With this briefing we give state-level policymakers and advocates another opportunity to get involved, and to look at the larger context of incarceration in their state and to develop strategies that will make their communities stronger and safer. This briefing is just a starting point. It’s time to get going.
The graphs made for this briefing are included in our profiles for each state:
and are available individually from this list:
This briefing contains several graphs with source information that is too extensive to fit on the graphs themselves, so we describe the sources here:
The graph “Regional state prison incarceration rates” uses three data sources to show the rates of incarceration from 1978 to 2010 for four regions of the U.S.:
The two graphs entitled “State Policy Drives Mass Incarceration” are drawn from twelve sources to show incarceration numbers and rates from 1925 to 2012 for state, federal and local correctional facilities:
The graph “State Prison Incarceration Rate: Select States & All 50 States” is drawn from these sources:
Analysis of the incarceration rate data provided by Bureau of Justice Statistics, Corrections Statistical Analysis Tool (CSAT) for the years 2008 to 2012. During that time the following states saw a rise in their incarceration rates: Alabama up 2.7%, Arizona up 2.4%, Georgia up 0.2%, Idaho up 4.8%, Illinois up 8.2%, Kansas up 6.9%, Louisiana up 2.8%, Missouri up 2.4%, New Hampshire up 3.4%, Oregon up 1.6%, Pennsylvania up 2.3%, South Dakota up 5.6%, Tennessee up 0.9%, Utah up 3.4%, and West Virginia up 14.2% ↩
For example, in 2012, the California state prison populaton dropped by 14,600 and the jail population grew by 8,500. See Bureau of Justice Statistics, Correctional Populations in the United States 2012, Table 5. ↩