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Good News and Bad News on Incarceration

W. Scott Cole

Posted on April 28, 2019 01:25

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There is good news and bad news on incarceration rates. Like most things in real life, we can’t have it all one way, but the good news is such to give those of us supporting reform heart. The bad news shows us where more work needs to be done, while continuing what seems to be working.

Before we get to the news, I want to define the difference between jail and prison, since most people use those terms interchangeably. If you have been arrested but haven’t yet been convicted, or, if you have been convicted and sentenced for a misdemeanor, you are in jail.  It is only after you have been convicted of a felony and sentenced to incarceration that you will find yourself in a prison. This is true on both the federal and the state levels.

OK, first, the good news: The total number of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons has fallen. The number of people in prison peaked in 2009 and has fallen gradually every year since, with a decline of 1.8% in 2018 alone. The decline has been driven mostly by a drop-off of new incarcerations through the Federal Bureau of Prisons and a large drop-off in the states with the highest incarceration rates, like New York, California, Missouri and North and South Carolina. Overall, in the last ten years, prison populations, in total, have declined 8.5%

Breaking it down just a little, the imprisonment rate for black adults fell a whopping 31% from 2007 to 2017.

One last bit of good news is that the total population in private prisons fell 5%.

The bad news is that in 19 states, mostly in the Midwest and the Appalachian and Rocky Mountain regions, state prison populations increased. Criminologists attribute the rise mostly to the opioid crisis.

While the imprisonment rate for blacks fell significantly, as evidence more work needs to be done in that area, the imprisonment rate for black men, as a percentage of the population, is still almost six times greater than it is for white men.

There is more good news on the jail front, where jail incarceration has fallen 12% in the last decade. Moreover, jail admissions fell 19% between 2007 and 2017. The percentage of black adults in jail also fell from 39% to 34%. The number of men (all races) in prison fell by 2.6%. Even better, the number of minors (those under 18 years old) fell almost 50% in those same ten years.

The bad news for jails is even grimmer than that of prisons, however. The percentage of the jail population of whites rose, from 44% to 50%, and, while the percentage of men in jail dropped, the percentage of women in prison increased. Like in the prisons, while the percentage of black inmates fell, they are still incarcerated in jail at three times the rate of whites, as a percentage of the population.

Additionally, one in five jails across the nation operate at or above capacity, meaning inmates are sleeping on the floors. Overcrowding carries increased risk of violence and it’s accompanying dangers to both inmates and staff.

As you can see, improvements have been made in some areas, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

W. Scott Cole

Posted on April 28, 2019 01:25

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