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Devin D. Thorpe

Devin Thorpe

New Analysis Questions Impact Of Reform In Era Of Mass Incarceration

The report, from the Vera Institute of Justice, uses new measurements that reveal different trends in incarceration

Press Release – The rise of mass incarceration was characterized by near universal, continuous growth in jail and prison populations across state and county lines, and in jurisdictions of all sizes. While universal growth is finally a thing of the past, it has not been neatly supplanted by decarceration. Instead, the single trend of growth fragmented into distinct trends of decarceration, stagnation, continued growth, and jurisdictional shifts that vary from state to state and county to county. As a result, the “old standard” of using state prison population as the primary indicator of the state of mass incarceration has become ineffective – and even misleading.

The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration, released today by the Vera Institute of Justice, provides a first-in-kind look at the multiplicity of incarceration trends that have emerged since the new millennium—which is widely recognized as an era of criminal justice reform. The report, supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, moves beyond the convention of using state prison populations as the measure of reform and instead explores the complex relationship between local jails and state prisons. It illuminates both where decarceration has happened and where true reform has remained elusive, creating a fresh sense of urgency to end our national overreliance on incarceration.

“The aim of this report is not to throw cold water on reform, but rather to add fuel to the fire”, said Christian Henrichson, Center Research Director at Vera. “Vera’s research shows there is an urgent need to rethink our approach to ending mass incarceration. While we celebrate the successes that have been achieved, the road to countering systemic injustice is difficult and complex. And failure comes at too high a cost. Mass incarceration leaves behind a long legacy that has stripped away the dignity of those behind bars, overly burdened people of color, ripped apart families and communities, and caused intergenerational harm that we cannot begin to quantify. We can and we must do better.”

This report comes as more and more states adopt legislation aimed at reducing prison and jail incarceration, and rhetoric from many policymakers continues to shift from “tough on crime” to “smart on crime. Between 2013 and 2015, at least 286 bills, executive orders, or ballot initiatives targeting sentencing or corrections reform were adopted across 46 states.

But the comprehensive metrics detailed in The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration, including jail admissions, pretrial jail population, sentenced jail population, and prison admissions, illuminate where policy change and public narrative continue to fall short.

For example, Arkansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia continue to incarcerate people in both prisons and jails at all-time high rates that keep increasing. In fact, while much of the country is locking fewer people in jails and prisons, Kentucky is among a handful of states where prison and jails are growing so fast that, if they continued at their current rate, the entire state would be incarcerated in just 113 years.

Many jurisdictions that have enacted reforms to meaningfully reduce incarceration in one part of the system may have failed to look at the full picture, including both prison and jail. For example, Indiana has reduced prison admissions by 25 percent and seen county jail populations grow by 32 percent between 2015 and 2017. In this context, true decarceration remains elusive as states and counties shift populations between prison and jail custody—a kind of incarceration shell game.

“This report sheds new light on the many drivers of mass incarceration and shows that we must focus more on the relationship between prisons and jails, not just prison population numbers, to keep advancing justice system reform,” said Laurie Garduque, director of justice reform at the MacArthur Foundation. “When considering local strategies that better address the drivers of incarceration, researchers and reformers should include a wider set of metrics – including prison admissions, jail admissions, pretrial jail populations, and sentenced jail populations – that look at both jails and prisons in concert.”

Link to full report:

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