Is America Making Progress in Curtailing Mass Incarceration?

According to a new report, while the overall number of inmates in the U.S. is declining, some states are still seeing their prison populations rise.
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The incarceration rate in America continues to decline overall, but not in every state. While 30 states saw a decline in their prison populations in 2017, as many 20 states saw a rise; in 10, incarceration numbers peaked.

That's according to a recent report from the Vera Institute of Justice, based on information collected from states and the federal Bureau of Prisons.

The overall number of incarcerated individuals per 100,000 people dropped by 2 percent in 2017 from the previous year; the total prison population fell to the lowest level since 2004. Those numbers are driven by the significant drops in the number of people held in federal prisons (3 percent), and in large state prison populations of Illinois, Maryland, and Louisiana (more than 5 percent). Yet, states like Tennessee and Utah actually went the other way, gaining 6.6 percent and 4.9 percent more prisoners between 2016 and 2017.

On its website, Vera Institute has an interactive map that presents the state-by-state situation. Users can toggle the parameters on the left to view the highest declines and the highest increases, as well as where each state ranks with respect to incarceration rate. Clicking on a state in the map pulls up its profile.

Below are 18 states with low incarceration rates that also saw their prison populations decline in 2017:

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The states with the biggest declines provide interesting case studies for criminal justice reform. Maryland is among the states with a low incarceration rate, and it saw its prison population fall the most—by almost 10 percent. Likely, this was a consequence of a 2016 law that sought to reduce sentences for non-violent offenders and prioritize rehabilitation and other treatments over incarceration. In 2017, the state also reformed its bail system, reducing the number of defendants it incarcerated because they couldn't afford to pay, which may have contributed to the overall decline in numbers.

Louisiana, on the other hand, has the highest incarceration rate in the country. But it experienced a 5.4 percent drop in just one month, November of 2017, when the state instituted a prison policy overhaul and released 1,900 incarcerated people early.

On the other end of the spectrum are nine states with high incarceration rates that saw their prison populations rise even further:

vera 2

Tennessee and Kentucky are pretty high up there when it comes to incarceration rates, and also saw some of the largest increases in their prison populations. In recent years, Tennessee's prisons have been bursting at the seams, thanks to aggressive policing, long sentences, and fewer incidents of parole, among other reasons.

One zip code in North Nashville has been the incarceration epicenter: At 14 percent, this majority-black neighborhood has the highest incarceration rate of similarly populous zip codes in the country. Although a conversation about criminal justice reform has started to take place in Tennessee, it doesn't seem to have made a dent in the bloated and steadily growing prison population so far.

What's concerning for criminal justice advocates is that attitudes at the federal level have also shifted in the last year. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has directed prosecutors to dole out tougher sentences and has scaled back policing reform. So while the data don't show it yet, it's possible that the nationwide gains made in decreasing mass incarceration may start to disintegrate in the future.

"If history is any lesson, it is that changes in prison populations are contingent on a range of political and public choices," Vera researcher Oliver Hinds said in a statement. "So we can't predict whether there will be a further prison drop."

This story originally appeared on CityLab, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to CityLab's newsletters and follow CityLab on Facebook and Twitter.

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