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Vera Institute of Justice--The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration Report, 2018

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The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration
Jacob Kang-Brown, Oliver Hinds, Jasmine Heiss, and Olive Lu
June 2018

From The Director
The turn of the century marked a new direction for
the nation’s prisons and jails: after three decades of
continuous growth, the U.S. incarceration rate leveled
off. The years since have been widely recognized as an
era of reform, heralding the end of mass incarceration.
The reality is more complex.
This report shows that while the dynamic of unified
growth—in prisons and jails, across all counties
and states—is indeed a thing of the past, the new
millennium marked the fragmentation of that one
dynamic into several incarceration trends. As a result,
the convention of using the state prison population
as the measure of success can mislead observers into
viewing the “era of reform” in too rosy a light. It is
not a proxy for the multiplicity of trends at play, and
obscures enormous variation within states and across
the country.
At a glance, prison populations have declined in half
of the states. Coupled with headlines that the U.S.
incarceration rate continues to fall, this trend has given
rise to claims of early victories. But when one digs
deeper, exploring the complex relationship between
local jails and state prisons, it becomes clear that true
reform has been more elusive.
In some counties, reductions to prison populations are
offset by increases in the jail population. Elsewhere,
more people are sent to prison while fewer are sent
to jail. The biggest surprise of all may be that progress
toward decarceration has actually eluded many states
where success has long seemed apparent—only the
largest cities are sending fewer to prison and jail, while
smaller cities and towns continue on a path of more and
more incarceration.
These insights were made possible through the Vera
Institute of Justice’s work weaving together over

40 years’ worth of prison and jail data in order to
produce tools and knowledge to help drive change for
communities across America.
The aim of this report is not to throw cold water on
reform, but rather to add fuel to the fire. Ultimately,
the United States cannot unwind mass incarceration
if reformers remain fixated on state-level trends
and solutions. The numbers show that ending mass
incarceration requires reform everywhere: in states and
in counties, in prisons and in jails.
But the legacy of mass incarceration is not one of
only datasets and policy. The damage wrought by its
decades-long rise cannot be measured solely in prison
and jail statistics. As incarceration ballooned, there was
a concurrent shift toward more punitive conditions of
confinement, as policymakers and courts prioritized
measures meant to ensure institutional safety over
the dignity and rights of incarcerated people. These
harms rippled past prison walls into the families and
communities left behind, and in collateral consequences
that accompanied people returning from prison or jail.
Such intergenerational impact is hard to quantify, and
harder still to undo.
Reducing the number of people behind bars is only
the first of many steps to counter the systemic harm of
mass incarceration. But it is an important step. We hope
the insights in this report—and the data available at
trends.vera.org—will help policymakers and the public
drive change everywhere.

Christian Henrichson
Research Director
Center on Sentencing and Corrections
Vera Institute of Justice

About this report
This report is one of a series that the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) is
releasing with the Safety and Justice Challenge—the John D. and Catherine
T. MacArthur Foundation’s initiative to reduce overincarceration by
changing the way America thinks about and uses jails. The initiative
is supporting a network of competitively selected local jurisdictions
committed to finding ways to safely reduce jail incarceration. Other
publications in the series to date include:
›› Incarceration’s Front Door: The Misuse of Jails in America;
›› The Price of Jails: Measuring the Taxpayer Cost of Local Incarceration;
›› Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform;
›› Out of Sight: The Growth of Jails in Rural America;
›› Divided Justice: Trends in Black and White Incarceration 1990-2013; and
›› the multimedia storytelling project, The Human Toll of Jail.

Through the Safety and Justice Challenge, our own office in New Orleans,
and direct partnerships with jurisdictions nationwide, Vera is providing
expert information and technical assistance to support local efforts to
stem the flow of people into jail, including using alternatives to arrest and
prosecution for minor offenses, recalibrating the use of bail, and addressing
fines and fees that also trap people in jail. For more information about
Vera’s work to reduce the use of jails, contact Nancy Fishman, project
director at Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections, at
nfishman@vera.org. For more information about the Safety and Justice
Challenge, visit www.safetyandjusticechallenge.org.

Contents
5	Introduction
9	

Incarceration reform: Uneven efforts in a fragmented system

11 	

The metric matters: What you see is what you solve

15	

To understand complex changes, multiple metrics are needed

	16		Jail admissions
	

17 		

Pretrial jail population

	

18 		

Sentenced jail population

	19		Prison admissions
	19		Prison population
	

20		

Putting it all together

20	

Four key trends in incarceration

	

21	

Decarceration: Cities lead the way

	

23	

Stagnation: Incarceration remains at historic highs

	

25	

A shifting landscape: Inverse effects on prisons and jails

	

30	

Growth continues

32	Conclusion
34

Appendix

37

Endnotes

Introduction

A

fter decades of continuous growth, the United States’ prison
population began to plateau in the new millennium as the nation
entered an era of criminal justice reform aimed at lowering the
footprint of incarceration. This seemed to herald the beginning of the end
for mass incarceration. Since 2007, when the country hit a peak of nearly
800 people in prison per 100,000 working age adults—over 1.6 million
people total—overall prison incarceration has declined by about 1 percent
on average each year. The new downward trajectory of incarceration in
the United States has paralleled a reckoning with the mounting costs of
confinement and a growing awareness that incarceration in America was—
in the words of a 2014 National Research Council report—“historically
unprecedented and internationally unique,” and did not have the promised
impact on public safety. (See “A brief history of mass incarceration: From
unified growth to an era of reform” at page 8.)
Legislative and policy reforms have not brought a swift reversal of
mass incarceration, however. Even prison population trends—long used
as convenient barometer of criminal justice reform’s progress—show
that unwinding the nation’s overreliance on incarceration will be a longterm endeavor. At the current pace, it will be 149 years until U.S. prison
incarceration rates are as low as they were in 1970. (See Figure 1 at page 6.)

The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration

5

Figure 1
How many years until incarceration in the United States falls to 1970 rates?

State prison incarceration rate (per 100,000 working age residents)

 Measured

 Extrapolated

700

600

500

2166

1970
400

300

2017

200

0
1975

2000

2025

2050

2075

2100

2125

2150

2175

Note: This projection is based on the average annual rate of decline in the state prison incarceration rate since its
peak in 2007.

At the same time, while aggregated national prison population data
indicates slow decline, it cannot be the sole indicator used to measure
the progress made in the nation’s recent efforts to reduce incarceration.
Prison populations are slow to change after the implementation of
most policy or practice changes, and thus provide an inadequate metric
by which to measure and adjust the immediate impact of reforms—or
regressive legislation. Furthermore, a reliance on aggregate prison data
fails to acknowledge or measure the tremendous variation in incarceration
trends from state to state and within states, and ignores a significant
locus of incarceration: local jails—county- or municipally-run facilities
that primarily hold people arrested but not yet convicted of a crime. For
example, while much of the country is locking fewer people in jails and
prisons, Kentucky is doing the opposite. If jails and prisons continue to
grow in Kentucky as they have since 2000, everyone in the state will be
incarcerated in 113 years. A comprehensive look at disparately reported
metrics for the nation’s 50 state prison systems and 2,872 local jail
jurisdictions is necessary to more accurately account for the headway made
thus far in reversing mass incarceration.1
To accomplish this goal, this report proposes a wider set of metrics
by which to analyze incarceration trends to supplement the old standard
of state prison population: 1) prison admissions; 2) jail admissions, 3)

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pretrial jail populations and 4) sentenced jail populations. When considered
together, this combination of metrics better captures the complexity of
contemporary incarceration trends at the state and local level, makes
the patterns that underlie national statistics discernable, and provides
a starting point for deeper investigation into the particular context of
individual counties’ justice systems. To aggregate and analyze these
metrics, Vera researchers merged two federally collected prison datasets—
the National Corrections Reporting Program and the National Prisoner
Statistics Program—with the jail data in Vera’s Incarceration Trends data
tool, sourced from the federal Annual Survey of Jails and Census of Jails.
In addition, Vera researchers collected data on incarceration directly from
states.
As this report will discuss, studying all the moving parts of the
incarceration system reveals a more messy truth: that there is no single
way to characterize the current state of mass incarceration. A single
trend of unified growth across states and counties, and in both prison
and jail incarceration, characterized mass incarceration’s rise. But that has
fragmented into four distinct incarceration trends, depending on how and
where incarceration is measured:
›› some jurisdictions have seen meaningful overall declines in both
prison and jail incarceration;
›› others have seen stagnation at high incarceration rates;
›› still others have seen shifts between prisons and jails in place of real
reductions to the footprint of incarceration; and
›› some have seen unchecked growth.
Ultimately, unwinding mass incarceration will require the particular
alchemy of data-driven policy and political will, sustained by pressure
from grassroots advocates and litigation. But only by acknowledging the
realities in thousands of jurisdictions across the country can researchers,
policymakers, and the public identify where reform is still only a promise
and target attention and resources to drive change. Without understanding
how local jail populations and county-level prison admissions have evolved
over time, it will be difficult to have a real sense of how state and local
systems are interacting, which problems to solve, or if progress is being
made at all.

The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration

7

A brief history of mass incarceration: From unified growth to an era of reform
After decades of stability, the U.S. incarceration rate increased
markedly between 1970 and 2000, growing by an average
of 12 percent each year to reach a total increase of about
400 percent—and the highest rate of incarceration in the
world.a The rise of mass incarceration was not perfectly
even: the incarceration rate in states like California and
Georgia began growing earlier, while in states like Minnesota
and Massachusetts the increase came later. Wisconsin and
Pennsylvania had notably high growth rates, but ultimately no
state resisted the trend. Increased reliance on incarceration
became mainstream public policy. For example, policy
researchers at the National Institute of Justice argued that
incarceration was a cost-effective way to reduce crime.b
Most elected officials fully supported policies reflecting that
approach—as well as the appropriations necessary to expand
and build new prisons and jails.c Investment in prison and jail
construction and expansion was so widespread and intensive
that this era is now known as the “prison boom.”d As the boom
progressed, courts and legislatures became less responsive to
incarcerated people’s claims to constitutional rights of speech,
association, and freedom from cruel punishments.e Close
review of ill-treatment or harm arising from overcrowding and
use-of-force incidents were largely replaced with deference
to wardens’ justifications of policies and practices in the

service of institutional safety and security, and the 1996 Prison
Litigation Reform Act further closed the door of the courthouse
as an avenue for improving conditions.f This created a unified
trend wherein every state increased the use of prisons and
jails and legislatures and courts felt little pressure to address
the mounting human toll of incarceration.
The new millennium marked a turning point and ushered
in a high plateau in the national incarceration rate: the
nationwide growth of incarceration rates slowed, even falling
slightly since the peak in 2007.g In part, this change was due
to increasing fiscal pressures states felt as a result of the
recession crisis of the early 2000s, but it solidified with the
subsequent financial crisis of 2008.h As leaders responded
to the financial crisis with calls for austerity, the budgetary
implications began to make continued incarceration growth
seem untenable in many states.i This was complemented by a
growing awareness that locking up huge numbers of people
had, at best, a marginal benefit to and, at worst, a corrosive
effect on, public safety.j Courts began to be more responsive
to mistreatment claims by from prisoners.k But incarceration’s
decline has been far less pronounced and much more uneven
than its rise, with wide variation across states and counties.l

For an early statement of the theory of stability, see Alfred Blumstein and Jacqueline Cohen, “A Theory of the Stability of Punishment,” Journal
of Criminal Law and Criminology 64, no. 2 (1973), 198-207.

a

Edwin Zedlewski argues that the benefits of crime reduction through incapacitation exceed the costs of prison operations by a ratio of 17 to 1.
See Edwin W. Zedlewski, Making Confinement Decisions (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, 1987). For a
critique that notes the ways in which these conclusions are flawed, see David F. Greenberg, “The Cost-Benefit Analysis of Imprisonment,” Social
Justice 17, no. 4 (1990), 49-75.

b

For research on elected officials supporting incarceration growth, see for example Marie Gottschalk, The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics
of Mass Incarceration in America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Jonathan Simon, Governing through Crime: How the War on
Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Mona Lynch, Sunbelt Justice:
Arizona and the Transformation of American Punishment (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2009); and Naomi Murakawa, The First Civil Right:
How Liberals Built Prison America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

c

Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley, CA: University of California
Press, 2007); and John M. Eason, “Reclaiming the Prison Boom: Considering Prison Proliferation in the Era of Mass Imprisonment,” Sociology
Compass 10, no. 4 (2016), 261-71.

d

e

Sora Han, Letters of the Law (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), 95.

Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987) (setting a standard of review). For a discussion of the impact of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, see Margo
Schlanger, “Inmate Litigation,” Harvard Law Review 116, no. 6 (2003), 1555-1706.

f

See Danielle Kaeble and Lauren Glaze, Correctional Populations in the United States, 2015 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2016),
2, https://perma.cc/PBG7-MPPU.
g

For a discussion of the scope of the state fiscal crisis in the early 2000s, see Peter Orzag, “The State Fiscal Crisis: Why It Happened and
What to Do About It,” Milken Institute Review, Third Quarter (2003), 17-25 (finding that states faced a $80 billion budget shortfall, 15 percent of
expenditures in the 2004 fiscal year), https://perma.cc/9V5D-8BGE. For impacts on policy related to incarceration see Ryan S. King and Marc

h

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Mauer, State Sentencing and Corrections Policy in an Era of Fiscal Restraint (Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project, 2002),
https://perma.cc/Y7L8-FXA7; Daniel F. Wilhelm and Nicholas R. Turner, Is the Budget Crisis Changing the Way We Look at Sentencing and
Incarceration? (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2002), https://perma.cc/D28Y-87FJ; and Jon Wool and Don Stemen, Changing Fortunes or
Changing Attitudes? Sentencing and Corrections Reforms in 2003 (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2004), https://perma.cc/46AJ-8PL2.
Adrienne Austin, Criminal Justice Trends: Key Legislative Changes in Sentencing Policy, 2001–2010 (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2010),
https://perma.cc/GB88-Y8VF; Marie Gottschalk, “Cell Blocks & Red Ink: Mass Incarceration, the Great Recession & Penal Reform,” Daedalus
139, no. 3 (2010), 62-73; and Aviram Hadar, Cheap On Crime: Recession-era Politics and the Transformation of American Punishment (Berkeley,
CA: University of California Press, 2015).
i

For a discussion on the growth of incarceration and the adverse effects of prison policies, see Michael Jacobson, Downsizing Prisons: How
to Reduce Crime and End Mass Incarceration (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 223. Oliver Roeder and colleagues found that
incarceration’s impact on crime rates diminished after 1990 and has had no crime reducing effect since 2000. See Oliver Roeder, Lauren-Brooke
Eisen, and Julia Bowling, What Caused the Crime Decline? (New York: Brennan Center for Justice, 2015), https://perma.cc/2RGF-DD3C.
Additionally, David Roodman concludes that “decarceration is, in the worst case encompassed by the evidence reviewed here, break even for
society.” David Roodman, The Impacts of Incarceration on Crime (San Francisco: Open Philanthropy Project, 2017), 135, https://perma.cc/
N3VG-8NL3. Also see Don Stemen, The Prison Paradox: More Incarceration Will Not Make Us Safer (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2017),
https://perma.cc/486N-WM5H.
j

Margo Schlanger reviews a recent case, Kingsley v. Hendrickson, 135 S. Ct. 2466 (2015), and concludes that the current state of court
oversight of incarceration is shifting again, back toward a closer review of conditions, in part through a closer review of the conditions for
people held pretrial. See Margo Schlanger, “The Constitutional Law of Incarceration, Reconfigured,” University of Michigan Public Law and
Legal Theory Research Paper Series, no. 535, (2017), https://perma.cc/S6K6-FQX4.

k

There has been no further national increase in the total incarceration rate (prison and jail) since (with an average yearly change of -1.2
percent), prompting some researchers to speculate about “a new dynamic … as growth in state incarceration rates has slowed significantly
across the nation.” See Jeremy Travis, Bruce Western, and Steve Redburn, eds., The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring
Causes and Consequences (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2014), 43, https://perma.cc/HM55-M5QX.
l

Incarceration Reform: Uneven
Efforts in a Fragmented System

T

he rise of mass incarceration was a veritable explosion, with
incarceration rates that grew rapidly and almost universally. Since
2000, state and local governments have been under increasing
pressure to address overcrowding in prisons and jails, and several have
passed legislation aimed directly at reducing the number of incarcerated
people. But such reforms have not been universally fruitful. Because the
criminal justice system is an amalgamation of thousands of city, county,
and state systems that operate differently—even when bound by the same
laws—it is perhaps unsurprising that reform efforts have played out
unevenly across jurisdictions nationwide.2

The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration

9

A handful of states led the way in pursuing ambitious policy changes
to stem the rise of mass incarceration. Michigan, for example, overhauled
its sentencing statutes and practices over a nearly 10-year span, beginning
in 1998.3 This legislative reform is estimated to have reduced the number
of people committed to prison between 2002 and 2004 by 1,366, and
increased parole approval rates so that an average of 900 additional
people were paroled each year.4 At the time, it was the only state to
have made significant progress in repealing mandatory minimums.5
Comprehensive reform packages followed in other jurisdictions, lowering
prison populations in states like Connecticut (2003-04) and Texas (2007).6
Gradually, more states adopted legislation aimed at reducing incarceration,
and rhetoric from policymakers also began to shift from “tough on crime”
to “smart on crime.”7 Since 2006, 36 states have participated in the Justice
Reinvestment Initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau
of Justice Assistance and the Pew Charitable Trusts, which provides
technical assistance to states that aim to reduce their prison populations or
curb growth.8 Between 2013 and 2015, 286 bills, executive orders, or ballot
initiatives targeting sentencing or corrections reform were advanced across
46 states.9
Vital change has been made via voter-driven initiatives as well. Voters
in California and Oklahoma passed ballot initiatives in 2014 and 2016
respectively that reduced punishment for certain crimes by classifying
them as misdemeanors rather than felonies.10 In 2014, New Jersey voters
eliminated a money bail requirement for pretrial release, a precursor to the
sweeping statewide bail reforms passed in 2016.11
Where legislation has not been forthcoming, litigation has been the
impetus for some reforms to incarceration policy.12 In 2011, the Supreme
Court ruled that overcrowding in California’s prisons constituted a
violation of the Eighth Amendment and upheld an order to decrease the
prison population to 137.5 percent of prison design capacity.13 This decision
triggered the release of a large number of people in state custody, many
of whom were shifted to local custody.14 The state has since legislatively
reduced its prison admissions by 63 percent, albeit at the cost of crowding
local jails until voters approved Proposition 47 in 2014.15 Proposition 47
reclassified some felonies as misdemeanors, further reducing incarceration
and arrests, and thus relieved some of the crowding problems in jails.16
In some instances, in a single legislative session laws have been passed
that are meant to reduce incarceration by focusing on one facet of the
criminal justice system, while simultaneously escalating punitiveness
elsewhere. For example, Tennessee’s Public Safety Act of 2016 created a
system of graduated sanctions for violations of community supervision,
with the aim of reducing the number of people being incarcerated
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Vera Institute of Justice

in both prisons and jails for violations of probation or parole—while
simultaneously enhancing sentences for people convicted of a third drug
trafficking, domestic violence, or burglary offense.17
Elsewhere, statewide measures are out of step with county-level
efforts to reduce incarceration’s footprint. In 2017, the Florida legislature
passed HB 477, establishing new mandatory minimum sentences for
the possession of fentanyl and its derivatives.18 Meanwhile, Miami-Dade
County’s Criminal Mental Health Project continues to serve as a national
model for pre- and post-booking diversion of people with serious mental
illnesses (SMI) or co-occurring SMI and substance use disorders into
community-based treatment and support services.19
Even in an era of widespread reform efforts, various policies and
practices may in fact work at cross purposes or not at all—making progress
toward reducing incarceration elusive. In this context, assessing progress
requires a close look at differences among the nation’s 50 states and within
each state’s regions and counties. Looking more comprehensively at the
metrics proposed in this report will provide a more accurate picture of the
actual impacts, if any, of reforms.

The Metric Matters: What You
See Is What You Solve

H

istorically, policymakers, researchers, and the public have largely
relied on state and national prison population trends to evaluate the
impact of incarceration policies, whether punitive or reformative.20
There is intuitive appeal to measuring prison populations in order to
understand the scope of incarceration, because the number of people in
prison is an easy-to-understand metric and because prisons have more
accessible data than jails and hold the majority of incarcerated people.
However, the unified dynamic of growth in incarceration has been
supplanted by the distinct trends outlined in this report. As such, state and
national prison populations do not necessarily tell a complete story and a
wider set of metrics is needed.21
It is impossible to measure “incarceration” using numbers that represent
only prisons because people are incarcerated in jails as well.22 In fact, eight

The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration

11

Methodology
This report analyzes trends in several metrics of incarceration
and incarceration rates at the state and local levels to reveal
how they are changing now, after the rise of mass incarceration.
To conduct this analysis, Vera researchers compiled a database
with population data from the U.S. Census, as well as jail and
prison incarceration data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics
and directly from state sources. Vera researchers used the U.S.
Census Bureau’s decennial census as well as the American
Community Survey (ACS) to source variables for community
characteristics. The project used Census Bureau population
estimates for individual years between 1970 and 2010, and 2016
estimates, all available from the U.S. Census Bureau.a All jail and
prison population and admissions counts and trends, except
where specifically cited in this paper, were derived from these
sources via the authors’ own calculations.

Jails

Vera researchers combined jail population and jail admissions
data from two Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) projects: Annual
Survey of Jails (ASJ) and Census of Jails (COJ). The ASJ has
been fielded 30 times between 1982 and 2016, and captures
data for a sample of a few hundred jails; in 2015, the sample
was approximately 800 counties, which included the 250 largest
jails, and a stratified sample of the remaining counties.b The
COJ captures data for nearly all counties and has been fielded
10 times: 1970, 1972, 1978, 1983, 1988, 1993, 1999, 2005, 2006, and
2013.c
This report includes data on jail populations and admissions by
gender collected in the Death in Custody Reporting Program
(DCRP) for each year from 2000 to 2013. Post-2013 DCRP data
has not been publicly released as of the date of publication. In
addition, Vera added BJS jail data disaggregated by convicted
status to assess differences over time and between jurisdictions
in the number of people held in jail pretrial versus after
sentencing.d

Prisons

Information on prison admissions and population is derived
from the National Corrections Reporting Program (NCRP),
which began recording data in 1983, and the National Prisoner
Statistics program (NPS), which provides state-level prison data
from 1926 to 2016. In some instances, Vera researchers collected
county-level data on prison admissions and population directly
from states for years not included in the NCRP. To supplement
NPS data, Vera researchers collected year-end 2017 prison
population counts from state departments of corrections.
The NPS covers the entire country, but only provides prison
data at the state level. The NCRP covers fewer states (currently

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about 40), but allows more detailed analysis of incarceration
statistics by county of court commitment. The county of court
commitment is generally where a person was convicted and
committed to serve time in a state correctional facility; it is not
necessarily the person’s county of residence, and may not even
be the county where the crime was committed, but is likely to
be both. In places with multi-county court districts like Georgia,
smaller counties share a single court district and district
attorney with their neighbors, but the county of commitment is
still the specific county where the crime took place, and each
county is counted individually in NCRP data.

Incarceration rate

Vera calculates incarceration rates—the number of incarcerated
people per 100,000 working age residents—using county
population data from the U.S. Census Bureau. For a more
accurate picture of incarceration rates, people under the age of
15 and over 64 are excluded since these groups are at very low
risk of jail incarceration.e Also, because the proportion of these
groups in the general population varies greatly by county—
less than 25 percent in some counties to over 40 percent in
others—including them could skew rates and make comparisons
between counties difficult. This method differs from most other
calculations of statewide and national incarceration rates,
which use either the total resident population or the population
aged 18 and older but do not exclude persons over 64.

Urban-rural classification

Vera’s analysis of the urban-rural continuum collapses the six
categories defined by the National Center for Health Statistics
(NCHS) Urban-Rural Classification Scheme for Counties to
four.f A county is labeled “urban” if it is one of the core counties
of a metropolitan area with a million or more people, and
“suburban” if it is within the surrounding metropolitan area. Vera
collapses the remaining four categories into two by combining
medium with small metropolitan areas, and micropolitan (an
urban area with a population of at least 10,000 but less than
50,000) with noncore areas (all other areas not considered
metropolitan or micropolitan).g Vera considers the former “small
and mid-sized metros” and the latter “rural.” Rural areas are the
most numerous, with more than 1,900 counties.

On making comparisons

The most common analyses of incarceration data feature
historical or cross-jurisdictional comparisons. The results of
these analyses, however, can be distorted by the comparability
of the metric analyzed, whether the data is expressed as a
rate or a count, and the time period analyzed. Readers should
keep in mind the following considerations when analyzing
incarceration data:

›› Rates or counts: Using incarceration rates per 100,000

residents can be useful to account for differences in
jurisdiction size or for changes over time. On the other
hand, one should also consider the absolute count when
a population has grown (or declined) substantially. For
example, the jail population in Texas increased 6 percent
from 2000–2015, but the number of state residents
increased 32 percent. Based on these numbers, the jail
incarceration rate is down, but the number of people in jail
is still growing at a time—and in a state—where there is
an emerging consensus that too many are already behind
bars.

Marshals Service. These incarcerated individuals are
aggregated into the general pretrial population in BJS
statistics, as they are awaiting the resolution of their cases
in federal immigration and criminal courts, respectively.

Incarceration Trends data tool

The Incarceration Trends data tool—available at trends.
vera.org—collates and visualizes this publicly available but
disparately located data about jail and prison incarceration
so that it can be used to explore how each county’s use of jail
and state prison compares with others over time.

›› Held for other jails or federal authorities: Cross-

county comparisons of pretrial population data can
become less reliable if one county holds a large number
of individuals for other authorities, such as other counties,
U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or the U.S.

Vera used the following files: Intercensal County Estimates by Age, Sex, Race: 1970-1979; 1980-1989 Intercensal County Estimates by Age, Sex, Race;
Intercensal Estimates (1990-2000) Age by Sex by Race by Hispanic Origin; 2000-2010 Intercensal Estimates - April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2010 by age,
sex, race and Hispanic origin; and vintage 2016 Population by age, sex, race, and Hispanic origin. Current post-censal and historical inter-censal
population estimates are available online at https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/popest.html.

a

U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), “Data Collection: Annual Survey of Jails (ASJ),” https://
perma.cc/646N-KGH6.

b

c

BJS, “Data Collection: Census of Jails,” https://perma.cc/QC2Q-WH7S.

For an example of the questionnaires used to collect this data, see BJS, “Data Collection: Mortality In Correctional Institutions (MCI) (Formerly
Deaths In Custody Reporting Program (DCRP)),” https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=dcdetail&iid=243.

d

It is not possible to exclude people under the age of 15 and over the age of 64 from the incarcerated count. While those over age 64 are a growing
part of prison, this comprises a very small proportion of those incarcerated. For example, in 2012 there were 26,200 prisoners over the age of 64 in
both state and federal custody, of 1,570,400 prisoners total, or 1.6 percent. Human Rights Watch, “Old Behind Bars: The Aging Prison Population in
the United States” https://perma.cc/Z622-GUPU; and E. Ann Carson and Daniela Golinelli, Prisoners in 2012: Trends in Admissions and Releases,
1991–2012 (Washington, DC: BJS, 2012), https://perma.cc/5WAA-8YJU.

e

See D.D. Ingram and S.J. Franco, 2013 NCHS Urban–Rural Classification Scheme for Counties (Hyattsville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services, 2014), 2-5, https://perma.cc/J434-9NJ4.

f

g

Ibid. at 14 & table 2.

The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration

13

states hold more people in local jails than in state prisons.23 In addition,
using prison population as a barometer of overall change only works well
when prison and jail populations are increasing or declining in tandem.
Otherwise, using the prison population as a proxy for all incarceration
data can obscure changes in other parts of the criminal justice system.
For example, New York’s state prison and jail populations have declined
together since the 1990s, and Nebraska’s jail and prison populations have
climbed together since the 1970s. But in more than a dozen states, jail and
prison trends do not move in the same direction and, even if they do, they
may move at different paces. For instance, Oklahoma’s prison population
has grown only slowly since 2000, while its jail population nearly doubled
in the same period.24 Without looking at disaggregated prison and jail data,
there is no way to tell how states are changing their use of incarceration.
Another reason to look beyond prison populations to fully understand
incarceration trends is that prison populations change slowly after a state
implements any but the most drastic reforms, because most people are
serving multi-year sentences. Policymakers often need data that is more
responsive to changes in policy and practice in order to continuously
measure and adjust reforms. For these reasons it is preferable to use the
rate of prison admissions and various jail incarceration rates, rather than
prison incarceration rates, to measure and report incarceration trends.
A singular focus on national prison data can be particularly problematic
when assessing the state of incarceration. The overall national prison
admissions rate has decreased by 24 percent since 2006. However,
separating the 10 states with the largest declines (California, Connecticut,
Illinois, Indiana, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, South
Carolina, and Vermont) from the other 40 states reveals that this decrease
has been driven by just a few states that have drastically reduced prison
admissions—with a single state, California, accounting for 37 percent of the
decline. (See Figure 2 at page 15.)
If county, rather than state, trends in prison admissions are examined,
a geographic pattern in incarceration trends becomes apparent.25 The most
populous counties are sending fewer people to prison, driving a decline
in national prison admissions, while elsewhere admissions are holding
steady at historically high rates or continuing to grow. Thus, from both
state and county perspectives, the national drop in prison admissions is

14

Vera Institute of Justice

Figure 2

Diverging trends in prison admissions
10 states with the largest decline

—

Other states

Total

400
Prison admissions rate (per 100,000 working age residents)

—

350

2%

300

-24%

250

-49%

200
150
100
50
0
1980

1985

1990

1995

2000

2005

2010

2015

The 24 percent drop in the national prison admissions rate since 2006 is due entirely to a 49 percent drop in 10 states.

better viewed as the average of a set of disparate trends. This observation
is consistent with prior Vera research on jail incarceration, which shows a
similar pattern.26

To Understand Complex
Changes, Multiple Metrics Are
Needed

F

ocusing on one metric will deliver information about the way that
metric is changing, but not necessarily information about how the
system as a whole is changing along with it. In order to measure
comprehensive change, it is vital to look beyond prison population at four
additional metrics which, when combined with prison population, allow
for a more nuanced and flexible understanding of how incarceration is
The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration

15

changing.27 In order to ensure that analyses of incarceration trends are
comprehensive, the following metrics should be used in conjunction with
prison population (both rates and counts):
›› Jail admissions. The number of times people are sent to local jails

annually is the best, albeit rough, estimate of how many people are
directly impacted by local incarceration.
›› Pretrial jail population. The number of people held in jail awaiting
the resolution of their charges provides a metric that is relatively
easy to compare across counties and states.
›› Sentenced jail population. The number of people serving time in
local jails helps represent the entirety of the sentenced population,
particularly as states shift incarcerated populations between prisons
and jails.
›› Prison admissions. The number of people admitted to state prison
in a given year presents a timely indicator of prison usage.
For more information on each state’s trends for these measures see Tables 1
and 3 in the Appendix at pages 34 and 36, or explore county- and state-level
data at http://trends.vera.org.

Jail admissions
Jail admissions is the count of people sent to jail in a given year. It
measures nearly every local incarceration, including people who are later
released, diverted, found innocent after trial, sentenced to jail, or sentenced
to prison. Studying the number of admissions to jail allows researchers
to estimate the total number of people who are incarcerated in a local
jurisdiction each year. It is not a perfect measure: it overcounts people
who are sent to jail more than once that year, and fails to capture people
who spend a full year (or longer) in jail, either awaiting resolution of their
cases or serving sentences of 12 months or more.28 But the vast majority of
people who are incarcerated in any given year are held briefly in a local jail;
the national jail admissions rate is about five times the combined jail and
prison incarceration rate.

16

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The annual jail admissions metric can be readily utilized across
jurisdictions to help determine and compare the tendency of a jurisdiction
to incarcerate people. Even though many people who pass through
jails have relatively fleeting contact with the criminal justice system—
particularly compared to those admitted to prison—such contact can still
have profound consequences if one loses a job or housing, or falls behind
on bills, loses custody of one’s children, or receives a conviction that carries
collateral consequences.29
On a national level, jail admissions have been trending down—people
were sent to jail 10.6 million times in 2016, three million fewer jail
admissions than 2008.30 (See Figure 3, below.) Studying jail admissions
can give researchers and policymakers information on where places are
reducing or increasing the broad burden of incarceration.
Figure 3

Jail admissions down 3 million since 2008
15

13.6M
10.6M

10

5

0
2008

2016

Pretrial jail population
Pretrial jail population is the number of people held in jail awaiting the
resolution of their charges. Pretrial incarceration is a core purpose of local
jails.31 After people are arrested, the relevant court decides whether to
hold them in jail pending resolution of the case, release them pending trial
with conditions (such as bail or pretrial supervision), or release them on
their own recognizance—that is, with an agreement to return for future
court dates.32 In some instances, the person is released based on their
agreement to comply with nonmonetary conditions (nonmonetary bail,
sometimes called an unsecured bond or a release on recognizance) and in
other instances a monetary security (money bail) may be demanded, which
is forfeited if the person fails to appear for the trial.33 The commercial

The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration

17

bail bond industry also plays a large role in who stays in jail and who is
released and collects large amounts in criminal justice related debt from
defendants.34 In many jurisdictions, overuse or overreliance on money
bail has resulted in disproportionate and lengthy pretrial incarceration of
people who cannot afford to pay.35
Pretrial jail population allows for a meaningful comparison of local
incarceration tendencies across state lines, and can serve as a clear indicator
of change in a particular state or jurisdiction. It is an important focus for
understanding the causes and consequences of incarceration, and can be
used to study the negative social and economic impact of contact with the
justice system.
Pretrial detention also has many downstream effects. A study from
Kentucky found that remaining in jail before trial increases the chances of
ultimate conviction by 50 percent.36 Detained individuals also received jail
sentences that were three times longer—and prison sentences nearly two
times longer—than people who were released during their cases.37

Sentenced jail population
The sentenced jail population is the number of people serving sentences
in a local jail. A portion of the sentenced jail population consists of people
who were sentenced to community supervision after or instead of a period
of incarceration, but who later violated the terms of their probation or
parole.
Typically, jail sentences are given to people serving brief custodial
sentences, usually for misdemeanor convictions, which carry relatively
short periods of incarceration compared to felony convictions.38 In an effort
to address overcrowded and expensive prisons, several states have recently
implemented reforms shortening sentences or reclassifying offenses so
that people charged with these offenses are eligible for jail sentences, or
mandating that people who would have previously served time in prison
now serve those longer sentences in local jails (see “Smaller prisons,
larger jails” at page 26). Tracking changes to sentenced jail populations
and comparing them with changes in prison populations can help
illuminate where states have merely shifted the site of, rather than reduced,
incarceration.

18

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Prison admissions
Prison admissions measures the number of people sent to prison each year.
These admissions may occur after a trial or plea, or after a person on parole
or probation violates the terms of community supervision.
The number of people sent to prison can change rapidly from year
to year in response to changes in state laws or the practices of police,
prosecutors, judges, or even probation and parole officers. This makes
it a more responsive and useful metric than overall prison population
for quickly determining how a policy, legislative, or practice change has
affected prison incarceration. More than half of the sentenced population
in state prisons consists of people who have been incarcerated for twoand-a-half years, and one in four people in prison has been incarcerated for
more than six-and-a-half years. Therefore the rate of prison incarceration is
not a timely barometer of incarceration policy in a given year, as it reflects
the practices of previous years.
County-level prison admissions also reflect the operation of local
criminal justice systems and provide a window into whether local officials
are fully implementing state-level sentencing reforms and sending fewer
people to prison, using discretion to avoid reforms, or eroding progress
toward reducing incarceration with a particular set of enforcement,
charging, sentencing and/or revocation choices.
Because virtually no states charge localities for prison usage, but
localities do pay for jail, socio-legal scholars have warned that incentives
may exist for localities to avoid county-level expenditures by preferentially
delivering prison sentences.39 As laws change and economic pressure
grows—especially in smaller communities faced with tight budgets and
dealing with the constraints of a crowded jail—there are opportunities and
incentives for local actors (including prosecutors and judges) to introduce
charging and sentencing policies and practices that push cases that could
be charged as either misdemeanors or felonies to state prison rather than
the local jail.40 Looking at county-level prison admissions in conjunction
with aforementioned jail statistics can more quickly illuminate where
that might be happening, and can serve as a point of departure for deeper
research or corrective action.

Prison population
Ultimately, success at reducing incarceration means a reduction in the
number of people in jails and prisons. Currently, state and federal prisons
hold the largest number of incarcerated people in the country, so prison

The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration

19

population is an important metric for the scale of incarceration. However,
prison population is generally slow moving compared to other measures,
as people with relatively longer prison sentences take time to clear the
system.41
Moreover, estimates of prison population are delayed by between one
and two years at the national and state levels, and even longer at the county
level.42 However, it is becoming increasingly common for states to report
current or recent counts of the number of people in prison. Recently, Vera
harnessed such reports to produce more timely estimates of the number of
people in prison.43 Reporting prison population with a lag of months rather
than years helps journalists, policymakers, and the public assess the current
state of incarceration.

Putting it all together
In order to demonstrate how this new multi-metric approach reflects
incarceration trends in a faster and more functional way than prison
population, it is instructive to look to Florida. (See Figure 4 at page 21.)
Prison population seems to tell one story, but all the other metrics point in
a different direction. The state’s prison incarceration rate, although in slow
decline as of the end of 2017, is up 14 percent overall since 2000. However,
jail admissions rates are down 40 percent, pretrial detention rates are down
12 percent, sentenced jail rates are down 24 percent, and prison admissions
rates are down 32 percent. In looking for the cause of Florida’s high prison
incarceration rate, statistics show that during this time period, the number
of people serving 10 years or more in prison doubled, reaching 16.8 percent
of the prison population in Florida.44 These long sentences may obscure the
other parts of the system that have adopted reforms, and may suggest one
area in need of reform in order to meaningfully reduce the state’s prison
population.

Four Key Trends in Incarceration

R

eviewing all five metrics—prison population plus the four proposed
additional metrics—in relation to one another reveals important
information about how incarceration is used in a county or state,

20

Vera Institute of Justice

Figure 4

Diverging measures of incarceration in Florida, 2000-2015
14%
Prison
population

-16%
Total jail
population

-12%
Pretrial jail
population
-24%
Sentenced jail
population
-32%
Prison
admissions

-40%
Jail
admissions

and across counties and states that have similar characteristics beneath
divergent appearances. The unified, rapid growth in jail and prison use that
defined the rise of mass incarceration extended to urban, suburban, and
rural areas in all 50 states. But in an era driven by efforts toward reform,
there are now three other key trends in addition to growth: decarceration,
jurisdictional shifts, and stagnation. These trends can only be seen by
drilling down and taking a coordinated look at the available data using the
metrics proposed above.

Decarceration: Cities lead the way
Thirty-four states have reduced their total (prison and jail) incarceration
rates since the national peak in 2007, suggesting that reforms designed
to reduce overall incarceration have been successful. However, this broad
statistic is largely driven by recent trends in large cities and their suburbs,
rather than signaling a uniform statewide movement toward decarceration.
A more granular look at the data reveals the truth about this dynamic, and
can help shape the development and implementation of future reforms.
The state of New York, for example, has made substantial progress
toward decarceration since the mid-1990s: prison populations dropped
31 percent between 1999 and 2015, and jail populations decreased by 27
percent during the same period. A different picture emerges, however, in
the county-by-county data. Declines in the jail population and in prison
The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration

21

admissions statewide have been entirely driven by decarceration in the
three largest cities (New York City, Buffalo, and Rochester).
Jail incarceration in New York used to be a largely urban phenomenon.
New York City’s jails held 56 percent of the state jail population in 1997; by
2015, that share had declined to 39 percent.45 Prison incarceration in large
urban and suburban cities shows a similar decline. Small- and mid-sized
cities and rural counties, on the other hand, show a continued increase in
prison admissions.46 (See Figure 5, below.)
This is not a phenomenon unique to blue states like New York: in Texas
and Missouri, similar patterns have emerged of decreasing incarceration
in urban areas driving a statewide average decline that hides increases
in more rural areas. In fact, in the 35 states for which there is reliable
county-level data, there is an almost universal urban-to-rural shift in
prison admissions, regardless of whether admissions are declining in
the state as a whole. (See Table 2 at page 35 in the Appendix.) These
geographic divergences can limit the usefulness of state-level assessments
of incarceration patterns, and illustrate how important it is for researchers
and journalists to ask how policing, prosecution, sentencing, and
incarceration are changing locally.47
Figure 5

New York prison admissions by geography

Rural

Small and mid-sized cities

Large metro (suburban)

Large metro (urban)

Total

Prison admissions (per 100,000 working age residents)

400
350
300
250

32%
60%

200
-29%

150

-50%
-12%

100
50

1985

22

1990

Vera Institute of Justice

1995

2000

2005

2010

2015

Stagnation: Incarceration remains at
historic highs
In some states, each metric shows a relatively flat trend. While it is good
news that prison and jail incarceration rates have stopped growing, these
rates are still at all-time highs. In crafting reforms to address this issue,
it is critical to look at the county-by-county data to see if the apparent
stagnation is a true statewide dynamic, or if it is an average of diverging
trends.
Some states mirror the overall national incarceration trend on both a
micro and macro level: incarceration rates remain stagnant with perhaps
a shift of a few percentage points one way or the other. This stagnation
dynamic is apparent in Louisiana, which has changed its usage of prisons
and jails little since 2000, despite many attempts at reform.48 As of
2016, the state had still not reduced incarceration. (See Figure 6 at page
24.) Louisiana’s incarceration rates across all metrics remain some of
the highest in the country and in the world.49 This may change as the
result of a 10-bill legislative package passed in 2017 meant to reduce the
prison population by 10 percent and the number of people on community
supervision by 12 percent over the next 10 years.50
Other “stagnant” states have experienced plateaus, but with a good
deal of change in county-level dynamics. Overall prison admissions
rates have stopped rising, but county-by-county data reveals that rather
than true statewide stagnation, some counties have an increasing prison
incarceration rate that is offset by declining rates in other counties. This
is usually the result of the same urban-rural dynamic that is driving New
York’s decarceration trend, except that the cities in these stagnant states
are not comparably large enough to offset the rural rise in incarceration.
For example, Virginia has only experienced a 4 percent growth in prison
admissions since 2000, but admissions from rural areas and smaller cities
have increased substantially (56 percent and 34 percent, respectively) at

The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration

23

Figure 6

Louisiana’s incarceration rate stuck near all-time highs

 Sentenced jail population

 Pretrial jail population

Total prison population

Incarceration rate (per 100,000 working age residents)

1200

1000

800

600

400

200

0
1980

1985

 Prison admissions (left)

1990

1995

2000

2005

2010

2015

 Jail admissions (right)

Incarceration rate (per 100,000 working age residents)

1400
1300
1200
10000

1100
1000

8000

900
800
700

6000

600
500
4000

400
300

2000

200
100
0
1980

24

1985

1990

Vera Institute of Justice

1995

2000

2005

2010

2015

0

the same time that admissions in urban areas have been decreasing. These
disparate dynamics create an apparent plateau in prison admissions when
examined at the state level. (See Figure 7, below.)

A shifting landscape: Inverse effects on
prisons and jails
Many jurisdictions have enacted reforms designed to drive down prison
or jail populations. In isolation, these decarcerative reforms may be
functioning as designed. But without a look at the full picture, including
both recent prison admissions and the sentenced jail population, it is
impossible to tell whether a jurisdiction is truly incarcerating fewer people,
or whether it is merely shifting populations between prison and jail
custody—a kind of incarceration shell game—without an appreciable drop
in overall incarceration.

Figure 7

Virginia prison admissions by geography

Rural

Small and mid-sized cities

Large metro (suburban)

Large metro (urban)

Total

56%
Prison admissions (per 100,000 working age residents)

350

300

34%
-23%
4%

250

200

-7%

150

100

50

0
2000

2002

2004

The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration

2006

2008

2010

2012

25

Smaller prisons, larger jails
Many states have redefined sentencing policies to reduce the risk of prison
incarceration. They have done this by reclassifying offenses that were
formerly felonies as misdemeanors—thus exchanging the possibility of a
custodial sentence in prison for the possibility of one in jail—or permitting
people convicted of certain low-level felonies to serve their custodial
sentences in local jail rather than in state prison.51 These reforms can have
an overall decarcerative effect by simultaneously reducing the prison
population and diverting more people from custodial sentences. However,
it is also possible to merely create an appearance of decarceration by
focusing narrowly on decreasing prison populations without consideration
of a policy’s impact on jail population. In addition, these reforms often
come about in conjunction with the potential for multi-year sentences
in jail, once the exclusive province of prisons. Jails are not designed to
support long stays, which can mean harsh conditions even if sentences
are shorter than prison sentences.52 (See “Why does it matter if people are
in jail instead of prison?” at page 28.) Moreover, after release, regardless of
whether one’s time is served in state or local custody, the lasting effect of a
criminal conviction remains largely unchanged.53
Between 2010 and 2015, 11 states reduced their prison populations
while simultaneously increasing the number of people held in jails. One
state shifting populations between prison and jails is California. Motivated
by a federal court order to reduce prison overcrowding, the state has
reduced its prison admissions by 63 percent since enacting realignment
legislation in 2011 that shifted the responsibility for many people in prison
from overcrowded prison facilities to jails.54 The legislation authorized
multi-year jail terms for some felony sentences, and there has been a
corresponding (but not equal) increase in the number of people serving
sentences in local jails in the state, although the passage of Proposition 47
in 2014 has subsequently reduced jail populations.55
Other states have implemented reforms with similar effects, if not
similar methodologies: North Carolina also passed reform legislation in
2011 that aimed to reduce prison populations in part by sending people
whose misdemeanor convictions (excluding impaired driving offenses)
carried sentences of 91-180 days to jails in participating counties instead
of state prison.56 Changes to the law in 2014 resulted in the requirement
that all misdemeanor sentences longer than 90 days be served in local jails,
further increasing the jail population in participating counties.57
Indiana provides another example of how populations can be shifted
from prison to jail. Faced with an increasing prison population, Indiana
passed legislation between 2013 and 2015 that added tiers to its felony

26

Vera Institute of Justice

classifications and included a prohibition on sentencing people convicted of
“lower level” felonies to prison.58 The legislation also prescribes jail instead
of prison stays for people with a prison sentence who have been released
into community supervision programs (either as a function of diversion or
parole practices), but who then violate the terms of their supervision.59 A
few years after implementation, it seems that these reforms have indeed
been effective at reducing the number of people sent to prison, but at the
cost of flooding local jails and increasing overall incarceration.60 The state
reported a 21.4 percent decline in the number of prison admissions in 2016,
and no change in 2017.61 (See Figure 8, below). On the other hand, Indiana’s
jail incarceration rate increased by 32 percent between 2015 and 2017.62
The state’s total incarceration rate (prison plus jail) was 1,076 per 100,000
residents in 2017, just below the all-time high of 1,083 in 2009 and up
from 993 in 2015. Several Indiana counties are currently considering jail
construction in order to make room for people serving sentences that once
would have been served in a state prison.63

Shrinking jails, growing prisons
Historically, jails have tended to grow (or level out at capacity) alongside the
growth of prison incarceration. Now, some counties are actually reducing
the number of people held in jails, but simultaneously sending more people
to state prison. Most policymakers and researchers have not considered
this phenomenon, and it is worth exploring in more depth because it is
happening in both high- and low-incarceration states. Criminal justice

Figure 8

Smaller prisons, larger jails (left) and Shrinking jails, growing prisons (right)

— Jail population

Indiana

500

400

300

200

100

0
2006

2008

2010

2012

2014

2016

The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration

Incarceration rate (per 100,000 working age residents)

Incarceration rate (per 100,000 working age residents)

— Prison admissions

Hennepin County, MN

500

400

300

200

100

0
2006

2008

2010

2012

2014

27

Why does it matter if people are in jail instead of prison?
The trend of increased jail populations and declining
prison populations might be seen as a net benefit to both
communities and incarcerated people, as jails are often
thought to be a less punitive alternative to prison. One relative
advantage of jail over prison is proximity: most counties
operate a jail and since people tend to be arrested, and thus
incarcerated, in their home counties, people held in jails are
likely to be closer to family and friends than if sent to state
prison. Yet for the increasing number of people serving longer
sentences in jail instead of state prison, the disadvantages of
jail incarceration far outweigh the advantages.a
While prison is meant to be a place of punishment, jail
ostensibly has a primary role of holding people in pretrial
detention temporarily while they await the resolution of their
cases.b The increasing number of people serving multi-year
jail sentences becomes a burden that local jail facilities
are often ill-equipped to manage.c Because jails are mostly
funded by local governments, greater budgetary constraints
limit the quantity and quality of services that local facilities
can provide.d As a result, many jails struggle to accommodate
and treat a population with significantly higher rates of
mental illness compared to both the general population

and people in prison.e Furthermore, people in jail are more
likely to be suicidal or have substance abuse issues, factors
that are compounded in chaotic, noisy, overcrowded jail
environments.f
Combined, these factors undermine the benefits that may
come from serving time in jail instead of prison. Even in
states that send large numbers of people to jail instead of
prison, a lack of financial support from the state to county
jails exacerbates the burden of care that local facilities face.
However, the potential benefits of serving time in jail instead
of prison may be achieved if states rethink how funds directed
to county jails are utilized. In Utah, for example, some people
serving prison sentences in county jails are benefiting from
individualized services provided through state funding and the
Department of Corrections’ Inmate Placement Program.g
Improving how state and local jurisdictions cooperate
financially and programmatically as incarceration shifts from
state prisons and local jails, while recognizing the evolving
purpose of jails, is a step toward reducing the negative
aspects of jail sentences and alleviating the burden of jail
incarceration overall.

David C. May, Brandon K. Applegate, Rick Ruddell, and Peter B. Wood, “Going to Jail Sucks (and It Really Doesn’t Matter Who You Ask),” American
Journal of Criminal Justice 39, no. 2 (2014), 250-66 (survey results demonstrating that average people would be willing to do a longer sentence in
prison if that meant they would avoid time in a local jail). See also discussion in John Irwin, The Jail: Managing the Underclass in American Society
(Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985) (discussing the experience of chaos in local jails); and Michael L. Walker, “Race Making in a Penal
Institution,” American Journal of Sociology 121, no. 4 (2016), 1051-78 (ethnography showing how jails are managed in ways that increase risk of intraand inter-racial violence).

a

The role of local jails has transformed in response to the rise in mass incarceration. May, Applegate, Ruddell, and Wood, “Going to Jail Sucks”
(2014), at 251.

b

Natalie R. Ortiz, County Jails at a Crossroads: An Examination of the Jail Population and Pretrial Release (Washington, DC: National Association of
Counties, 2015), 8, https://perma.cc/M9RL-R5XY.

c

d

Amy L. Solomon, Jenny W.L Osborne, Stefan F. LoBuglio, et al., Life After Lockup: Improving Reentry from Jail to the Community (Washington, DC:

Urban Institute, 2008), 11-13, https://perma.cc/F2PQ-Y8T9.
Jeffrey L. Metzner, Fred Cohen, Linda S. Grossman, and Robert M. Wettstein, “Treatment in Jails and Prisons,” in Treatment of Offenders With
Mental Disorders, edited by Robert M. Wettstein (New York: Guilford Press, 1998), 211, 230; and Linda A. Teplin and Ecford S. Voit, “Criminalizing the
Seriously Mentally Ill: Putting the Problem in Perspective,” in Mental Health and Law: Research, Policy and Services, edited by Bruce D. Sales and
Saleem A. Shah (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 1996), 283, 294-95. See also Craig Haney, Jennifer K. Johnson, Kathleen Lacey, and Michael
Romano, Justice That Heals: Promoting Behavioral Health, Safeguarding the Public, and Ending Our Overreliance on Jails (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford
Law School, 2016) (the authors support a proposal to address the intersection of behavioral health and the criminal justice system outside of jail),
https://perma.cc/EVZ4-W5WS.

e

From 2007–2009, 63 percent of the sentenced jail population met DSM-IV criteria for drug dependence and abuse, compared to 58 percent of
state prisoners. See Jennifer Bronson, Jessica Stroop, Stephanie Zimmer, and Marcus Berzofsky, Drug Use, Dependence, and Abuse Among State
Prisoners and Jail Inmates, 2007–2009 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2017), https://perma.cc/22BB-LALR.
The jail suicide rate, 50 per 100,000 people held in local jails in 2014, is 2.5 times higher than the prison suicide rate (20 per 100,000 people held
in state prisons). See Margaret E. Noonan, “Mortality in Local Jails, 2000-2014—Statistical Tables” (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice,
Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2016), https://perma.cc/NF8T-3FKD; and Margaret E. Noonan, “Mortality in State Prisons, 2000-2014—Statistical Tables”
(Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2016), https://perma.cc/DKJ7-E3GZ.

f

g
Mariah Noble, “How Utah’s County Jails Have Helped Some State Felons Rebuild Their Lives and Create a Community,” Salt Lake Tribune, March 18,
28 https://perma.cc/DBT2-MVU6.
Vera Institute of Justice
2018,

Incarceration and correctional control
No look at incarceration, however in-depth, reflects the
complete footprint of the corrections system. The missing
piece of the puzzle is the population under community
supervision, which is as much as double the size of the
population incarcerated in prison and jail.a For example,
while Minnesota as a whole has a relatively low rate of both
prison and jail incarceration (ranked 48th for both), its rate
of probation supervision is fifth highest in the nation, giving
it an overall correctional control rate equal to Alabama, and
50 percent higher than California.b While this report does not
address people under community correctional supervision, it
is important to acknowledge that growing numbers of people
under probation and parole supervision, coupled with rates of
violations, affect the metrics of incarceration.
For example, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, has seen the
rate of people sent to state prison system climb, even as the
rate of local jail incarceration has declined. But unlike some
other jail-versus-prison admission rate shifts, the number
of prison commitments in Lancaster County appears to be
driven in large part by readmissions for parole violations.
The 107 percent increase in admissions to Pennsylvania
Department of Corrections custody between 2005 and 2016
was driven by a 189 percent increase in admissions due to
parole violations; while new court commitments increased
by 61 percent.c Statewide, revocations have accounted

for more Pennsylvania prison admissions than new court
commitments since 2015, which appears to be a result of
increased numbers of people on parole, rather than a higher
rate of revocation.d Pennsylvania is already among the states
with the highest rates of community supervision, and efforts
to reduce the incarcerated population by pushing people into
an overburdened parole system may have had the unintended
consequence of sending even more people to prison, more
frequently, and for longer periods.
Currently, there is a lack of comprehensive local data
on community supervision. If researchers and reformers
intend to address the full spectrum of incarceration policy
and correctional control, collecting and studying prison
admissions data separated by new commitments and
revocations, as well as filling the gaps in available data on
local-level community supervision, will be an important part of
their work.

See Danielle Kaeble and Lauren Glaze, Correctional Populations in the United States (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2016), 12 &
table 1, https://perma.cc/XP4J-L27C. See also Pew Center on the States, One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections (Washington, DC:
Pew Charitable Trusts, 2009), https://perma.cc/6UWA-S33P.

a

See Michelle S. Phelps, “Mass Probation: Toward a More Robust Theory of State Variation in Punishment,” Punishment & Society 19, no. 1 (2017),
53-73, https://perma.cc/7TCJ-FZSY. See also Kaeble and Glaze, Correctional Populations in the United States (2016), at 12.

b

The number of court commitments and parole revocation admissions by county was compiled from annual reports available from the
Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, “Reports,” https://perma.cc/WW9Q-LETV.

c

Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, Annual Statistical Report 2016 (Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, 2016), 3 &
table 2, https://perma.cc/3DWJ-WHT5.

d

system actors can drive shifts between jail and prison with policies and
practices including law enforcement decisions, prosecutorial charging
and plea bargaining approaches, the speed at which cases are disposed,
sentencing decisions made by judges, and decisions about revocation of
community supervision made by probation and parole officers.64 One

The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration

29

possible factor in these changes is that sending people to the state prison
system rather than keeping them in local custody may be financially
advantageous to a county given that almost all states foot the bill for prison
beds and counties pay for jails.65 If the goal of a policy change is to reduce
incarceration, then further action is required to stop more people from
going to state prison.
Hennepin County (Minneapolis, Minnesota) has one of the lowest
jail and prison incarceration rates among large cities in the Midwest. The
current jail incarceration rate is half that of comparable counties like Polk
County (Des Moines, Iowa) or Cuyahoga County (Cleveland, Ohio). Further,
the jail incarceration rate has declined 20 percent since 2007. In 2016, local
justice system stakeholders formed the Adult Detention Initiative, and
have proposed further interventions that aim to reduce the jail population
by another 10 percent.66 Yet in contrast to the declining jail population
and incarceration rate, the county is sending more people to prison than
ever, with a 50 percent increase in prison admissions by new court
commitments between 2007 and 2015. (See Figure 8, above, at page 27.)
Other Minnesota counties, especially Stearns County (St. Cloud), as
well as seven states—Georgia, Kansas, North Carolina, New Hampshire,
Nevada, West Virginia, and Wyoming—follow a similar pattern of
declining jail incarceration and increasing prison admissions. Statewide
in Minnesota, prison admissions were up 17.2 percent between 2010 and
2017, from 6,999 to 8,200.67 This growth appears mostly due to revocations
of community supervision, up 37.4 percent from 2,467 to 3,391 during the
same period.68 (See “Incarceration and correctional control” at page 29.) Part
of this increase is also due to new “tough on crime” legislation, including
mandatory minimums and enhanced penalties.69

Growth continues
Hidden behind the apparent U.S. incarceration plateau is a more disturbing
dynamic: continued growth. The states of Arkansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma,
and West Virginia continue to incarcerate people in both prisons and
jails at all-time high rates that keep increasing year after year. In fact, if
Kentucky’s incarceration rate continues growing at the same rate that it
has since 2000, everyone in the state will be incarcerated in 119 years. (For
growth in Kentucky, see Figure 9 at page 31.) And, in Oklahoma, where
the overall prison incarceration rate was second highest in the nation in
2017, the prison population is projected to grow by 25 percent over the
next decade.70 But in 2016, Oklahoma voters passed State Questions 780
and 781, reclassifying drug possession and low-level property offenses

30

Vera Institute of Justice

from felonies to misdemeanors and funneling cost savings into community
rehabilitation programs and, in 2018, the legislature passed additional
criminal justice reform measures that might further reduce the prison and
jail populations.71 Whether these efforts can turn the rising tide of mass
incarceration in the state remains to be seen. Similar efforts at reform in
Arkansas and West Virginia have yet to stem the growth of incarceration in
those states, a phenomenon that merits further study.72

Figure 9

Continuing incarceration growth in Kentucky

Total prison population

 Sentenced jail population

 Pretrial jail population

800

(per 100,000 working age residents)

700

600

500

400

300

200

100

0
1980

1985

1990

1995

2000

2005

2010

2015

1985

1990

1995

2000

2005

2010

2015

Prison admissions

Prison admissions (per 100,000 working age residents)

800

700

600

500

400

300

200

100

0
1980

The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration

31

New data still needed
While prison population and admissions and the three
jail metrics are key for evaluating changes in the use of
incarceration, true reform must encompass more than
incarceration, and reformers will need additional data
to address the ways that the justice system impacts
communities.a

›› First, states and local governments should measure

the total numbers of people impacted by correctional
supervision in community, both probation and parole, in a
given year.

›› Second, jails should track the number of people sent to jail
each year by race and gender to better understand and
reduce disparities.

›› Third, more comprehensive information is needed on

people with complicated cases who are held in jail and
might otherwise be released—for example those who
have bail for one charge plus a hold for a missed court
appearance warrant in another jurisdiction, or those
who are not eligible for bail because they have also been
incarcerated for a low-level offense or technical probation
violation.

›› Fourth, accurate court and admissions data for probation

and parole violations and misdemeanors is needed at
more specific jurisdictional levels—city and town courts in
addition to county courts.

›› Lastly, information on sentence and length of stay is

needed to account for important differences in prison and
jail usage across states.

Some scholars distinguish between mass incarceration and the carceral state; this paper addresses only one side of the story—numbers
related to incarceration. See discussion in Katherine Beckett, “The Politics, Promise, and Peril of Criminal Justice Reform in the Context of Mass
Incarceration,” Annual Review of Criminology 1 (2018), 235-59, https://perma.cc/X9Z2-V3TG.

a

Conclusion
The fine-grained metrics for interpreting incarceration presented in this
report reveal the complicated reality of the era of reform: the nation’s
progress is uneven. The criminal justice system, as an amalgamation
of thousands of systems on the city, county, state, and federal levels, is
constantly shifting and evolving in response not only to statewide policy
changes or court orders, but also to local police, prosecutorial, and judicial
priorities.
Mass incarceration’s rise, characterized by unified growth across states
and counties, has not been supplanted by an even, nationwide decline in
the number of people behind bars. To the contrary, the widely heralded “era
of reform” seems never to have arrived in some jurisdictions, where growth
has continued unchecked. Worsening incarceration in a handful of states
and counties threatens to erode national progress, while remaining hidden
by analyses used to study incarceration that rely solely on state prison
population.

32

Vera Institute of Justice

To be sure, the fragmentation of unified growth into the four different
contemporary incarceration trends—growth, decline, stagnation, and
jurisdictional shifts—is itself proof that some progress has been made
toward unwinding mass incarceration: the single phenomenon of growth
may well be a thing of the past. Reforms to criminal justice policy and
practice—whether statewide as in South Carolina, or locally driven as
in New York state—have lessened the toll of incarceration in the United
States.73 Furthermore, overall jail admissions have been trending down.
People were sent to jail 10.6 million times in 2016, 3 million fewer jail
admissions than 2008.74 But still, even in states that have truly reduced
the number of people behind bars from their peak, the specter of mass
incarceration is alive and well. Both California and New York now send as
many people to prison as they did in the 1990s, when California had the
highest prison admissions rate in the country and New York was in the top
half. Maybe the biggest change is that so many other places have become
much worse, and the new normal is much more punitive.
This report emphasizes the need to examine the “old standard”
metric of prison population in conjunction with the more flexible and
granular metrics of jail admissions, pretrial jail population, sentenced jail
population, and prison admissions in order to see a clearer picture of these
contemporary dynamics of mass incarceration. With this information,
researchers can evaluate how a state uses incarceration in a way that is
sensitive and responsive to state and local policy shifts, and policymakers
and advocates can better craft—and adjust—strategic, targeted reforms that
will safeguard progress and truly undo the nation’s collective overreliance
on incarceration. Only then will it be possible to chart a path toward a new
universal dynamic of decline in both prison and jail populations, across
urban and rural communities.

The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration

33

Appendix
Table 1

State incarceration percent change 2007-2015
Prison
population

Prison
admissions

Jail
admissions

Pretrial
jail population

Sentenced jail
population

Connecticut a
Maine
Massachusetts
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New York
Pennsylvania
Rhode Island a
Vermont a

-23%
-8%
-13%
-1%
-25%
-19%
8%
-12%
-18%

N/A
-22%
-21%
7%
-34%
-23%
10%
N/A
N/A

-24%
-14%
-38%
4%
-29%
-26%
-21%
-45%
-26%

-17%
33%
-5%
-4%
-16%
-16%
8%
-11%
2%

-52%
-26%
-38%
-15%
-23%
-24%
-10%
-43%
-26%

Illinois
Indiana
Iowa
Kansas
Michigan
Minnesota
Missouri
Nebraska
North Dakota
Ohio
South Dakota
Wisconsin

2%
-1%
-1%
7%
-13%
11%
7%
18%
12%
4%
2%
-3%

-25%
-9%
-6%
19%
-1%
0%
-7%
6%
38%
-27%
-21%
-25%

-15%
-28%
-5%
-18%
-26%
-12%
-3%
-7%
11%
-12%
-3%
-24%

-20%
3%
18%
8%
-4%
3%
10%
19%
50%
-1%
40%
6%

131%
-36%
-16%
-14%
-18%
-25%
-35%
-37%
-28%
-24%
-85%
-23%

Alabama
Arkansas
Delawarea
District of Columbia b
Florida
Georgia
Kentucky
Louisiana
Maryland
Mississippi
North Carolina
Oklahoma
South Carolina
Tennessee
Texas
Virginia
West Virginia

2%
21%
-5%
N/A
-3%
-10%
-2%
-7%
-14%
-16%
1%
11%
-17%
3%
-13%
-4%
20%

1%
40%
N/A
N/A
-14%
-23%
24%
-4%
-13%
-35%
41%
6%
-41%
-10%
-8%
-20%
19%

-28%
53%
59%
-51%
-40%
-22%
-12%
5%
-36%
-3%
-22%
16%
-23%
-5%
-24%
-20%
-22%

-22%
27%
-16%
-36%
-26%
-25%
-2%
-2%
-35%
2%
-12%
11%
-25%
21%
-10%
-8%
22%

-1%
12%
-29%
-82%
-16%
5%
27%
4%
-16%
6%
147%
36%
27%
-6%
-27%
-1%
2%

Alaska a
Arizona
California
Colorado
Hawaii a
Idaho
Montana
Nevada
New Mexico
Oregon
Utah
Washington
Wyoming

-30%
8%
-29%
-20%
-17%
-6%
5%
-8%
10%
5%
-10%
-4%
10%

N/A
-4%
-76%
-26%
N/A
-5%
10%
-8%
-6%
-6%
-28%
24%
18%

23%
-33%
-22%
-23%
-2%
-27%
-11%
-20%
7%
-10%
-13%
-33%
-16%

7%
-18%
-31%
-12%
11%
8%
19%
-17%
-7%
1%
-10%
-18%
-9%

166%
27%
34%
-19%
46%
-32%
-5%
19%
-34%
-34%
3%
-41%
-8%

Northeast

Midwest

South

West

a

Prisons and jails form one unified system. Prison and sentenced jail populations are estimated by separating the sentenced population based on sentence length;
sentences greater than one year were assigned to the “prison” category.

b

The District of Columbia does not run a prison system. People sentenced to prison are transferred to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Table 2

Changing geography of prison admissions 2000-2013
Large metro
(Urban)

Large metro
(Suburban)

Small and
Mid-sized metro

Rural

Maine
Massachusetts
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New York
Pennsylvania

--15%
--45%
-42%
-8%

--3%
-48%
-32%
-7%
133%

60%
-36%
12%
-22%
33%
83%

84%
0%
57%
-54%
174%

Illinois
Iowa
Michigan
Minnesota
Missouri
Nebraska
North Dakota
Ohio
South Dakota
Wisconsin

-13%
--14%
13%
-19%
---29%
--32%

-2%
--6%
46%
17%
--35%
--5%

4%
14%
-16%
132%
29%
64%
59%
16%
22%
17%

15%
19%
24%
96%
44%
35%
94%
63%
22%
42%

Alabama
Arkansas
Florida
Georgia

8%
--20%
-21%

62%
-3%
-11%
17%

35%
13%
17%
-10%

77%
15%
45%
0%

Northeast

Midwest

South

Kentucky

19%

197%

59%

122%

Louisiana
Maryland
Mississippi
North Carolina
Oklahoma
South Carolina
Tennessee
Texas
Virginia
West Virginia

-24%
-25%
-33%
-15%
--29%
25%
-23%
--

12%
41%
0%
9%
9%
-42%
31%
33%
-7%
49%

12%
42%
20%
4%
8%
-28%
67%
57%
34%
148%

35%
50%
6%
14%
22%
-30%
83%
76%
56%
119%

Arizona
California
Colorado
Hawaii

19%
-75%
-8%
--

89%
-73%
29%
--

23%
-70%
48%
53%

84%
-68%
7%
2%

West

Nevada

-3%

--

-28%

-8%

Oregon

-18%

32%

30%

12%

Utah

-38%

-30%

-17%

-16%

Washington
Wyoming

-34%
--

7%
--

35%
30%

38%
24%

Table 3

How has your state’s incarceration changed compared to other states?
Prison
Population Rank
2000

2015

Prison
Admissions Rank
2000

2015

Jail
Admissions Rank
2000

2015

Pretrial Jail
Population Rank
2000

2015

Sentenced Jail
Population Rank
2000

2015

Northeast
8

19

39

48

34

40

35

49

Maine

49

49

43

43

50

44

48

45

45

38

Massachusetts

48

50

44

44

31

39

50

46

8

29

New Hampshire

46

47

42

36

46

46

45

47

39

39

New Jersey

31

46

25

39

29

35

20

33

36

42

Connecticut a

New York

27

42

27

38

35

47

36

42

28

47

Pennsylvania

37

27

38

28

16

10

21

11

16

16

Rhode Island a

36

38

44

50

49

51

27

44

Vermont a

41

41

51

51

51

50

49

51

45

Midwest
Illinois

28

33

7

17

41

41

24

36

48

Indiana

34

24

17

9

21

16

25

10

20

26

Iowa

40

40

22

22

48

43

35

35

50

48

Kansas

35

35

21

18

28

26

26

25

24

23

Michigan

14

22

33

33

34

37

33

44

29

24

Minnesota

50

48

40

30

47

49

47

49

34

43

Missouri

12

10

4

5

43

33

32

21

46

46

Nebraska

44

39

37

35

42

31

37

23

40

37

North Dakota

47

44

39

15

49

32

46

29

42

34

Ohio

22

16

12

21

40

38

42

39

31

32

South Dakota

30

20

19

4

38

29

41

19

25

41

Wisconsin

23

26

26

37

15

25

38

34

5

11

South
Alabama

7

6

29

11

13

18

17

12

13

27

Arkansas

17

8

5

3

27

12

23

13

30

17

Delaware a

1

3

3

13

15

27

2

9

12

19

3

24

51

15

District of Columbia b
Florida

16

11

10

29

5

11

5

9

12

21

Georgia

11

13

15

24

2

5

4

7

4

4

Kentucky

29

14

16

1

9

2

10

8

9

2

Louisiana

3

1

3

2

1

1

2

2

1

1

Maryland

18

36

18

27

23

36

16

38

33

33

Mississippi

4

7

13

14

7

4

7

4

10

5

North Carolina

25

30

35

25

36

34

19

20

47

50

Oklahoma

5

2

11

8

26

9

12

6

44

10

South Carolina

9

18

14

34

18

21

8

15

43

30

Tennessee

24

21

9

19

4

3

11

5

3

3

Texas

2

9

1

6

10

22

14

14

7

31

Virginia

21

17

31

31

11

8

22

18

6

6

West Virginia

45

28

41

16

37

20

40

30

26

14

West
6

4

1

3

38

7

Arizona

10

5

20

12

22

28

13

17

37

35

California

15

37

2

42

17

30

18

37

21

22

Colorado

26

31

24

23

30

27

28

32

23

18

Hawaii a

20

23

Idaho

19

12

6

Montana

32

32

Nevada

13

15

Alaskaa

6

7

45

40

43

48

41

28

7

19

23

27

16

17

25

30

10

33

24

31

26

32

19

8

13

14

17

9

28

22

13

New Mexico

39

34

23

20

8

6

6

1

19

20

Oregon

38

29

36

32

25

42

30

41

18

36

Utah

42

45

28

41

24

15

39

31

11

8

Washington

43

43

34

40

32

45

44

43

15

40

Wyoming

33

25

32

26

20

14

29

22

14

12

a
Prisons and jails form one unified system. Prison and sentenced jail populations are estimated by separating the sentenced population based on
sentence length; sentences greater than one year were assigned to the "prison" category.
b
The District of Columbia does not run a prison system. People sentenced to prison are transferred to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Endnotes
1	 Some jail jurisdictions consist of regional jails serving more than one
county. See Todd D. Minton, Scott Ginder, Susan M. Brumbaugh,
Hope Smiley-McDonald, and Harley Rohloff, Census of Jails:
Population Changes, 1999–2013 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice
Statistics, 2015), 20, https://perma.cc/F5ZF-Q6BM.
2	 Vanessa Barker, The Politics of Imprisonment: How the Democratic
Process Shapes the Way America Punishes Offenders (London:
Oxford University Press, 2009); and John Hagan, John D. Hewitt,
and Duane F. Alwin, “Ceremonial Justice: Crime and Punishment in a
Loosely Coupled System,” Social Forces 58, no. 2 (1979), 506-27.
3	 In 1998, Michigan modified its notorious “650 Lifer” law, eliminating
the charge of life without the possibility of parole for possessing or
delivering 650 grams of heroin or any mixture containing cocaine,
and granted parole eligibility to more than 200 people sentenced
under the law. The law was amended from a mandatory life
sentence to “life or any term of years, not less than 20” and applied
retroactively for those sentenced under the statute, making them
eligible for parole. Michigan Public Act 314 (1998),
https://perma.cc/K2QN-TGRP.
4	 In 2002, Michigan eliminated almost all mandatory minimum
sentences for drug possession and did away with lifetime probation,
and in 2003 it adopted a “Five Year Plan to Control Prison Growth”
promoting alternatives to incarceration for some offenses and for
technical violations of parole, which are violations of the terms of
parole supervision that do not themselves constitute a new crime.
See Growth in Michigan’s Corrections System: Historical and
Comparative Perspectives (Livonia, MI: Citizens Research Council of
Michigan, 2008), https://perma.cc/GP5R-M5JR.
5	 Michael H. Tonry, Sentencing Fragments: Penal Reform in America,
1975–2025 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 9.
6	 For a discussion of reforms in Connecticut in 2003 and 2004, see
Michael Jacobson, Downsizing Prisons: How to Reduce Crime and
End Mass Incarceration (New York: New York University Press, 2005),
193-204, https://perma.cc/3QY2-UPVN. For an assessment of the
“Texas Model,” see Council of State Governments (CSG), Justice
Reinvestment in Texas: Assessing the Impact of the 2007 Justice
Reinvestment Initiative (New York: CSG, 2009),
https://perma.cc/79BJ-ZAP9. See also Adrienne Austin, Criminal
Justice Trends: Key Legislative Changes in Sentencing Policy,
2001–2010 (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2010), https://perma.
cc/HHM4-B4C3.
7	 For early statements about “smart on crime,” see Vincent
Schiraldi, “Getting Smart on Crime: Many States are Questioning
the Wisdom of Hard-Line Prison Policies,” Albany Times Union,
December 7, 2003; 2009 Criminal Justice Transition Coalition,
Smart on Crime: Recommendations for the Next Administration and
Congress (Washington, DC: Constitution Project, 2008), https://
perma.cc/3PEE-J5CL; Kamala D. Harris, Smart on Crime: A Career
Prosecutor’s Plan to Make Us Safer (San Francisco: Chronicle
Books, 2009); and U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Smart on
Crime: Reforming the Criminal Justice System for the 21st Century
(Washington, DC: DOJ, 2013), https://perma.cc/LD8M-67F9. Also see
Kentucky Smart on Crime, https://perma.cc/DD6A-RXKS (accessed
February 6, 2018).

The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration

8	 Susan B. Tucker and Eric Cadora, Ideas for an Open Society:
Justice Reinvestment (New York: Open Society Institute, 2003),
https://perma.cc/62XG-4MHS; Bureau of Justice Assistance,
“Justice Reinvestment Initiative,” https://www.bja.gov/programs/
justicereinvestment/index.html (accessed February 1, 2018); and
Marc Mauer and Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Fewer Prisoners, Less Crime: A
Tale of Three States (Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project, 2014),
https://perma.cc/MV7L-8KJY. A current count of the current and past
states implementing JRI can be found here: https://csgjusticecenter.
org/jr.
9	 See Ram Subramanian, Rebecka Morena, and Sharyn Broomhead,
Recalibrating Justice: A Review of 2013 State Sentencing and
Corrections Trends (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2014),
https://perma.cc/ZC3U-9DSA; and Rebecca Silber, Ram
Subramanian, and Maia Spotts, Justice in Review: New Trends in
State Sentencing and Corrections 2014–2015 (New York: Vera Institute
of Justice, 2016), https://perma.cc/UU5L-TVPK.
10	 In 2014, California’s voters passed Proposition 47, reclassifying many
drug and property crimes as misdemeanors and reinvesting cost
savings in community-based treatment and education. California
then passed Proposition 57 in 2016, enabling parole consideration
for people convicted of some felonies and expanding earned time
credits. See California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation,
“What You Need to Know About Proposition 47,” https://www.cdcr.
ca.gov/news/prop47.html; and California Department of Corrections
and Rehabilitation, “Proposition 57, The Public Safety and
Rehabilitation Act of 2016,” https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/proposition57/.
In 2016, Oklahoma voters passed State Questions 780 and 781,
reclassifying drug possession and low-level property offenses from
felonies to misdemeanors and funneling cost savings into community
rehabilitation programs. D. Kent Meyers, Roger Strong, and Melanie
Rughani, “Petition to the Oklahoma Secretary of State to Amend
Statutes to Reform Criminal Sentences for Certain Property and
Drug Offenses,” January 27, 2016, https://perma.cc/6XXR-5EJ4; D.
Kent Meyers, Roger Strong, and Melanie Wilson Rughani, “Petition to
the Oklahoma Secretary of State to Create the County Community
Safety Investment Fund,” January 27, 2016, https://www.sos.ok.gov/
documents/questions/781.pdf; and “State Question 780 & 781:
Criminal Justice Reform Measures Approved by Voters,” Tulsa World,
November 8, 2016, https://perma.cc/2Z6U-Z5QJ.
11	 See Matt Arco, “Election Day 2014: Voters Approve Bail Reform
Measure,” NJ Advance Media, November 4, 2014,
https://perma.cc/6K7A-M6TT. See also State of New Jersey, Attorney
General Law Enforcement Directive No. 2016-6 (Trenton, NJ: State
of New Jersey, 2016) (providing detailed guidance on bail reform
implementation), https://perma.cc/CRT5-RFUX.
12	 Some scholars have concluded that after Kingsley v. Hendrickson,
135 S. Ct. 2466 (2015), court oversight of incarceration is shifting
back toward a closer review of conditions, in part through a
closer review of the conditions for people held pretrial. See Margo
Schlanger, “The Constitutional Law of Incarceration, Reconfigured,”
University of Michigan Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper
Series, no. 535, (2017).
13	 Brown v. Plata, 563 U.S. 493 (2011), 538-41, 539 (noting “The three-

37

judge court concluded that the population of California’s prisons
should be capped at 137.5% of design capacity. This conclusion is
supported by the record”).
14	 Between 2008 and 2015, in California, the probation population
fell by 18.9 percent, jail population decreased by 5.6 percent,
prison population fell by 25.3 percent, parole declined by 28.7
percent, and the total correctional control population dropped by
20.7 percent. Probation, parole, and prison numbers are based on
end-of-year figures, while the jail figure is based on the average
daily population.
15	 Realignment legislation shifted the responsibility of incarceration
from the state to the county for certain populations: people
convicted of “low-level” felonies, people who violate parole
without a new conviction, and people released from prison
on parole after a “low-level” felony conviction. See California
AB 109 (2011) (2011 realignment legislation addressing public
safety), https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.
xhtml?bill_id=201120120AB109. See also the discussion in Joan
Petersilia, “California Prison Downsizing and Its Impact on Local
Criminal Justice Systems,” Harvard Law & Policy Review 8, no.
2 (2014), 327-57, https://perma.cc/RU9N-9NHA; Charis Kubrin
and Carroll Seron, “The Prospects and Perils of Ending Mass
Incarceration in the United States,” ANNALS of Political and Social
Science 664, no. 1 (2016), 16-24, http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/
pdf/10.1177/0002716215616341; and Magnus Lofstrom and Steven
Raphael, Public Safety Realignment and Crime Rates in California
(San Francisco: Public Policy Institute of California, 2013), https://
perma.cc/8CEW-5SCP.
16	 Proposition 47 also directed cost savings to mental health and
substance use services, truancy and dropout prevention, and
victim services. For discussion of Proposition 47’s impact on
jail populations, see Magnus Lofstrom and Brandon Martin,
California’s County Jails (San Francisco: Public Policy Institute
of California, 2017), http://www.ppic.org/wp-content/uploads/
JTF_CountyJailsJTF.pdf. For discussion of the programs funded
by the savings, see “Board Awards $103m in Prop 47 Funds to
Innovative Rehabilitative Programs,” California Board of State and
Community Corrections, June 8, 2017, https://perma.cc/RG59UU9W.
17	 Tennessee SB 2567 (2015), https://perma.cc/MZU4-VL5H.
18	 Florida HB 477 (2017), https://perma.cc/L6WR-84KR.
19	 John K. Iglehart, “Decriminalizing Mental Illness—The Miami
Model,” New England Journal of Medicine 374, no. 18 (2016), 170103, https://perma.cc/XER5-LUHT.
20	 For news articles reporting on prison population, see for example
German Lopez, “The US Prison Population Fell in 2016—for
the 3rd Year in a Row,” Vox, January 11, 2018, https://www.
vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/1/11/16880166/prison-ratemass-incarceration-2016; Timothy Williams, “U.S. Correctional
Population at Lowest Level in Over a Decade,” New York Times,
December 29, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/29/
us/us-prison-population.html; and Adam Liptak, “U.S. Prison
Population Dwarfs that of Other Nations,” New York Times,
April 23, 2008. https://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/23/world/
americas/23iht-23prison.12253738.html. For scholarship based
on prison populations, see for example Michelle S. Phelps and

38

Vera Institute of Justice

Devah Pager, “Inequality and Punishment: A Turning Point for Mass
Incarceration?” ANNALS of the American Academy of Political
and Social Science 663, no. 1 (2016), 185-203; Marc Mauer, “The
Causes and Consequences of Prison Growth in the United States,”
Punishment & Society 3, no. 1 (2001), 9-20, http://journals.sagepub.
com/doi/pdf/10.1177/14624740122228212; Theodore Caplow and
Jonathan Simon, “Understanding Prison Policy and Population
Trends,” Crime and Justice 26 (1999), 63-120; and Chris Mai and
Ram Subramanian, The Price of Prisons: Examining State Spending
Trends, 2010–2015 (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2017)
(evaluating relationship between state prison population size and
prison spending), https://perma.cc/Q899-3W8S.
21	 Overall declines also mask the increasing number of incarcerated
women in prison and jail (see Elizabeth Swavola, Kristine Riley,
and Ram Subramanian, Overlooked: Women and Jails in an
Era of Reform (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2016); and
Aleks Kajstura, Women’s Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017
(Northampton, MA: Prison Policy Initiative, October, 2017), https://
perma.cc/Q3KK-95SZ; as well as the number of white people in
prison and jail. See Ram Subramanian, Kristine Riley, and Chris
Mai, Divided Justice: Trends in Black and White Jail Incarceration,
1990-2013 (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2018), https://perma.
cc/NU83-ZXKJ. See also Eli Hager, “A Mass Incarceration Mystery,”
Marshall Project, December 15, 2017, https://perma.cc/7WHWWCCM.
22	 Further, international comparisons of incarcerated populations are
difficult without the inclusion of jail data. See Tapio Lappi-Seppälä,
“American Exceptionalism in Comparative Perspective: Explaining
Trends and Variation in the Use of Incarceration,” in American
Exceptionalism in Crime and Punishment, edited by Kevin R. Reitz
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 195-27.
23	 The eight states are Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts,
Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico and Utah. For many of these
states, a large number of people in local jails are serving prison
sentences, and the local facility has a contract to provide beds for
(often overcrowded) state prison systems. See discussion in Jacob
Kang-Brown and Ram Subramanian, Out of Sight: The Growth of
Jails in Rural America (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2017),
13-16, https://perma.cc/7FZV-FKEQ.
24	 Oklahoma Department of Corrections (ODOC) released a story
explaining that BJS reports, while accurate, do not show the
complete scope of incarceration in the state. ODOC argues that
the 2016 data shows a prison population decline, but that if people
sentenced but not yet transferred to DOC custody are included
in the count, there is actually a prison population increase. See
ODOC, “Oklahoma No. 2 in the Nation in Overall Incarceration in
2016; No. 1 in Female Incarceration,” http://doc.ok.gov/oklahomano-2-in-the-nation-in-incarceration-in-2016 (accessed February 6,
2018).
25	 Vera researchers studying jail incarceration found a trend of
declines among big cities and increases among less populous
counties. See Kang-Brown and Subramanian, Out of Sight (2017).
26	 Ibid. at 9-16.
27	 Additional measures may be needed in particular counties
or states. For instance, a state with a large population under
community supervision may need to track technical violations

separately from new admissions to prison or jail.
28	 In addition, annual jail admissions have not been measured by BJS
consistently between 1978 and the present. BJS has asked this question
at different time scales, collecting new admissions in the Census of
Jails and Annual Survey of Jails for a typical week in 1978; a year (July
to June) from 1983 to 1991; a 24-hour period (June 30) in 1992 and
1993; the last week in June from 1998 to 2014; and a year (calendar) in
2015. Vera researchers supplement these BJS surveys with admissions
data from the Death in Custody Reporting Program from 2000–2013
that uses calendar year jail admissions. See discussion of variety of
questions used in BJS jail collections in Jacob Kang-Brown and Oliver
Hinds, Incarceration Trends Project: Data and Methods for Historical
Jail Populations in U.S. Counties, 1970–2015 (New York: Vera Institute of
Justice, 2018).
29	 Nick Pinto, “The Bail Trap,” New York Times Magazine, August 13, 2015,
https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/magazine/the-bail-trap.html.
See also Frances Robles and Shaila Dewan, “Skip Child Support. Go
to Jail. Lose Job. Repeat,” New York Times, April 19, 2015 (narrating
how short stays of jail incarceration lead to job loss), https://www.
nytimes.com/2015/04/20/us/skip-child-support-go-to-jail-lose-jobrepeat.html; and Joe Palazzolo, “5 Things to Know About Collateral
Consequences,” Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2015, https://blogs.wsj.
com/briefly/2015/05/17/5-things-things-to-know-about-collateralconsequences/.
30	 Zhen Zeng, Jail Inmates in 2016 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice
Statistics, 2018), 2, https://perma.cc/AAC8-Z6VH.
31	 Richard S. Frase, “Jails,” in The Handbook of Crime and Punishment,
edited by Michael Tonry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 474.
32	See Stack v. Boyle, 342 U.S. 1, 4 (1951). While the Eighth Amendment
prohibits excessive bail, courts can deny bail and detain people before
trial in consideration of public safety, see United States v. Salerno,
482 U.S. 739, 754-55 (1987). Under federal bail law, in making pretrial
release or detention decisions, courts consider factors including the
nature of the offense charged, strength of evidence, prior offending
history, and flight risk. See 18 U.S.C. §3142, as amended in 1984; and
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Pretrial Practice: Rethinking the
Front End of the Criminal Justice System (New York: John Jay College
of Criminal Justice, 2016), 6, 14-22, https://perma.cc/E5QK-SQC6.
The court considers various factors in making this decision, including
the likelihood that the person will comply with conditions of release,
whether they are a danger to the community, and the probability that
they will return for the trial. See for example American Bar Association,
Standards for Criminal Justice: Pretrial Release (3rd ed. 2007),
Standard 10-1.4 (conditions of release), https://perma.cc/3NPW-24UL.
33	 John Jay College, Pretrial Practice (2016), at 15-19. Limited data on
bail in courts is available but, according to a BJS study of the 75
largest counties in the United States, it has been on the rise. Of felony
defendants who were released in 2009, 61 percent included financial
conditions and 49 percent included the use of surety bonds. This is up
from 37 percent with financial conditions and 24 percent with surety
bonds in 1990. See Brian A. Reaves, Felony Defendants in Large Urban
Counties, 2009—Statistical Tables (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice
Statistics, 2013), 1, https://perma.cc/XEQ6-6BSG.
34	 Mathilde Laisne, Jon Wool, and Chris Henrichson, Past Due: Examining
the Costs and Consequences of Charging for Justice in New Orleans
(New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2017) (finding that in New Orleans
in 2015, “defendants and their families paid a total of $1.7 million in
government fees in conjunction with posting bail—in addition to the
The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration

$4.7 million they paid to bond agents”), https://perma.cc/4R3W7HQG. See also Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Shaila Dewan, “When
Bail Feels Less Like Freedom, More Like Extortion,” New York Times,
March 31, 2018 (identifying that commercial bail is a $2 billion industry
and concluding, “It is not hard to find people whose entire lives have
been upended by the bail bond industry. Some defendants wind up
in jail for no offense other than falling behind on their bail payments.
Others decide to plead guilty to crimes that they did not commit just
to escape from the financial demands of their bondsman.”), https://
www.nytimes.com/2018/03/31/us/bail-bonds-extortion.html. See also
Joshua Page, “Desperation and Service in the Bail Bond Industry,”
Contexts, Spring 2017, https://perma.cc/N782-F3LF.
35	Timothy Schnacke, Money as a Criminal Justice Stakeholder:
The Judge’s Decision to Release or Detain a Defendant Pretrial
(Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of
Corrections, 2014), https://perma.cc/BB3X-CKAL.
36	 Christopher T. Lowenkamp, Marie VanNostrand, and Alexander
Holsinger, Investigating the Impact of Pretrial Detention on Sentencing
Outcomes (New York: Laura and John Arnold Foundation, 2013),
https://perma.cc/2LAE-NRLX.
37	 Ibid. at 14, 18.
38	 Misdemeanor convictions can carry sentences of one year or less. See
for example the U.S. federal sentencing guidelines’ classification of
offenses in 18 U.S.C. §3559.
39	 Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins have analyzed the problem
of states paying for local prison sentences as creating a perverse
incentive, calling it “Correctional Free Lunch.” See Franklin E. Zimring
and Gordon Hawkins, The Scale of Imprisonment (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1991), 211.
40	 For recent empirical studies of the issue see W. David Ball,
“Tough on Crime (on the State’s Dime): How Violent Crime
Does Not Drive California Counties’ Incarceration Rates—and
Why it Should,” Georgia State Law Review 28, no. 4 (2012),
987-1082, https://readingroom.law.gsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.
cgi?article=2695&context=gsulr; and John F. Pfaff, “Escaping from
the Standard Story: Why the Conventional Wisdom on Prison Growth
is Wrong, and Where We Can Go from Here,” Federal Sentencing
Reporter 26, no. 4 (2014), 265-70 (in which the author discusses the
“moral hazard problem for county prosecutors”).
41	 A notable exception to the idea that prison populations are slow to
change is the 5 percent reduction in Louisiana’s prison population in
November 2017.
42	 National prison statistics at the state level are in the NPS, and that
data tends to be released with about a year lag. National county-level
data sets are reported in the NCRP and, as of publication in 2018, the
most recent version available was 2015.
43	 See discussion of sources of state prison data in Oliver Hinds, Jacob
Kang-Brown, and Olive Lu, People in Prison in 2017 (New York: Vera
Institute of Justice, 2018), https://perma.cc/57HX-N4AL.
44	 See feature and analysis in Leigh Courtney, Sarah Eppler-Epstein,
Elizabeth Pelletier, Ryan King, and Serena Lei, A Matter of Time: The
Causes and Consequences of Rising Time Served in America’s Prisons
(Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2017), 32, http://apps.urban.org/
features/long-prison-terms/intro.html.
45	During this same time frame, the city’s share of state residents has
remained roughly the same, growing from 41 to 45 percent.
46	 For a deeper analysis of jail incarceration in New York state, see Insha
Rahman and Chris Mai, Empire State of Incarceration (New York:
39

Vera Institute of Justice, 2017), https://www.vera.org/state-ofincarceration.
47	 For a review of recent literature on state-level stories about
mass incarceration, see Michael Campbell, “Varieties of Mass
Incarceration: What We Learn from State Histories,” Annual Review
of Criminology 1 (2018), 219-34, https://www.annualreviews.org/
doi/abs/10.1146/annurev-criminol-032317-091957.
48	 Louisiana HB 442 (2013) allowed for the possibility of a suspended
sentence for people charged with nonviolent, low-level felony drug
possession; and Louisiana HB 149 (2015) reduced penalties for
marijuana possession.
49	 Dramatic reductions in incarceration rates in Seychelles have
moved the United States back to the number one spot. See tables
published in the World Prison Brief by the Institute for Criminal
Policy Research at Birkbeck, University of London, https://perma.
cc/GSF9-5MW5. Louisiana had the highest prison incarceration
rate of U.S. states in 2017, according to Vera analysis. The
combined prison and jail incarceration rate in Louisiana was also
highest among U.S. states in 2015, the most recent year for which
the Bureau of Justice Statistics has published a complete count
of people held in local jails and prisons. See Danielle Kaeble and
Lauren Glaze, Correctional Populations in the United States 2015
(Washington, DC: BJS, 2016), https://perma.cc/6B9R-BMY6. See
also analysis in Cindy Chang, “Louisiana is the World’s Prison
Capital,” Times-Picayune, May 13, 2012 (arguing that “First among
Americans means first in the world”), https://perma.cc/KCN2ESPB.
50	 Reforms include expansion of parole eligibility for people
convicted of some offenses, including most people sentenced to
life without parole as juveniles; the reduction of habitual offender
penalties and penalties for some drug and property offenses;
expansion of earned compliance credits; and strengthening of
diversion and reentry programs. Louisiana HB 489, passed as part
of the package, also mandates data collection to monitor the
impact of the reforms. See Louisiana SB 16, 139, 220, 221 (2017); and
Louisiana HB 116, 249, 489, 519, 680, 681 (2017). See a summary of
the 10 bills included in the legislative package in Louisiana Justice
Reinvestment Task Force (JRTF), “Louisiana Justice Reinvestment
Package,” https://perma.cc/LZ84-N3H7.
51	 For example, in Utah, possession of a Schedule I or II controlled
substance was reclassified from a third-degree felony to a Class A
misdemeanor, with a maximum one-year custodial sentence in jail,
see Utah HB 348 (2015); while in Nebraska, custodial sentences of
less than one year are required to be served in county jails. See
Nebraska LB 605 (2015).
52	 Jails are more likely than prisons to be understaffed and staff
are often undertrained and poorly compensated; while budgetary
limitations for local facilities impact the quantity and quality
of services and result in inadequate recreational, educational,
visitation, and employment opportunities. G. Larry Mays and
Joel A. Thompson, “The Political and Organizational Context of
American Jails,” in American Jails: Public Policy Issues, edited by
Joel A. Thompson and G. Larry Mays (Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1991).
See also the discussion in Margo Schlanger, “Inmate Litigation,”
Harvard Law Review 116, no. 6 (2003), 1555-706, 1684-89.
53	Felony convictions, however, generally have more collateral
consequences than misdemeanor convictions. Joe Palazzolo,
“5 Things to Know About Collateral Consequences” (2015);
40

Vera Institute of Justice

and Council of State Governments Justice Center, “National
Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction,” https://
perma.cc/7XZK-887H.
54	Realignment legislation shifted the responsibility of incarceration
from the state to the county for certain populations: people
convicted of “low-level” felonies, people who violate parole without
a new conviction, and people released from prison on parole after
“low-level” felony conviction. See California AB 109 (2011). See also
discussion in Petersilia, “California Prison Downsizing” (2014);
and Kubrin and Seron, “The Prospects and Perils of Ending Mass
Incarceration” (2016).
55	Lofstrom and Raphael, Public Safety Realignment and Crime Rates
in California (2013). For discussion of Proposition 47’s impact on
jail populations, see Lofstrom and Martin, California’s County Jails
(2017).
56	Jamie Markham, “The Justice Reinvestment Act: An Overview,”
North Carolina Criminal Law, June 30, 2011, https://perma.cc/
L38R-FEQN.
57	 North Carolina Session Law 2014-100, at 155-59, https://perma.cc/
ULU3-XYJ3
58	 HEA 1006 revised Indiana’s criminal code, established a
justice reinvestment advisory council to review and evaluate
local corrections programs, and redirected funding from jail
operations to mental health and substance abuse treatment
programs. See Indiana HEA 1006 (2015); and Andrew Falk, An
Initial Evaluation of Indiana’s Criminal Code Reform (HEA 1006)
(Indianapolis, IN: Sagamore Institute, 2015), http://www.in.gov/
cji/files/Final%20Draft%20-%20ICJI%202015%201006%20
Report.pdf. See also Maureen Hayden, “Indiana’s Criminal Code
Reform Impact Studied,” Goshen News, September 22, 2013
(discussing legislative goals and local concerns), http://www.
goshennews.com/news/local_news/indiana-s-criminal-codereform-impact-studied/article_8754c0b5-293b-53a6-8369d708f97b8adf.html. Initial evaluations of HEA 1006 suggested that
legislative change alone would not result in desired reductions
to the prison population. Georgia-based Applied Research
Services, Inc., projected continued prison population growth
due to increased sentence lengths. See John Speir, Tammy
Meredith, Kevin Baldwin, and Sharon Johnston, Analysis of
Fiscal Impact of House Enrolled Act 1006 Criminal Code Reform
(Atlanta, GA: Applied Research Services, Inc., 2013), https://
bloximages.chicago2.vip.townnews.com/nwitimes.com/content/
tncms/assets/v3/editorial/7/96/796448d2-458c-504f-884a4bc8c76d7368/52a7cf628b124.pdf.pdf. Further, an American
Institutes for Research evaluation found that reducing recidivism
through diversion and local intervention would require an
additional $10.5 million per year. See G. Roger Jarjoura, Nathan J.
Zaugg, and Konrad A. Haight, Assessing the Local Fiscal Impact of
HEA 1006 (Indianapolis, IN: American Institutes for Research, 2014),
https://perma.cc/H3P8-6HUG.
59	Falk, An Initial Evaluation of Indiana’s Criminal Code Reform (HEA
1006) (2015).
60	 Niki Kelly, “DOC Cost-saving Move Disappoints,” Journal Gazette,
September 20, 2017, https://perma.cc/F97C-XA8C. See also
Mark Webber, “The Cost of Inmates: State Law Creates Shifts in
County Jail,” Republic, March 3, 2017, http://www.therepublic.
com/2017/03/03/the_cost_of_inmates_/.
61	 E. Ann Carson, Prisoners in 2016 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department

of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2018), 10-11,
https://perma.cc/59LZ-QETC; and Indiana Department of
Correction, 2016 and 2017 Annual Report (Indianapolis, IN: Indiana
Department of Correction, 2017), https://perma.cc/JV2R-6SW8.
Indiana’s major sentencing reform bill (Indiana HB 1006) moved
individuals serving state time for low-level felonies back to their
home counties to finish their sentences (to both county jails and
community corrections). Kristine Guerra, “County Jails Fear
Onslaught of Addicts, Mentally Ill From Prison,” IndyStar, February
2, 2015, https://perma.cc/6WAA-LW33.
62	 See data and discussion in Indiana Criminal Justice Institute,
Annual Evaluation of Indiana’s Criminal Code Reform (Indianapolis,
IN: Indiana Criminal Justice Institute, 2017), https://perma.cc/
SP7U-NJN7.
63	 Vera researchers scanned local news and surveyed counties in
Indiana by phone in summer 2017. Marion County (Indianapolis)
plans to build a new jail. James Briggs, “New Marion County Jail
Could Cost $575M,” IndyStar, February 28, 2017, https://perma.
cc/35XE-ZL45. Vigo County plans a 410-bed expansion. Howard
Greninger, “Vigo County Ponders How to Pay for New Jail,” Tribune
Star, January 28, 2017,
	http://www.tribstar.com/news/local_news/vigo-county-pondershow-to-pay-for-new-jail/article_9794f132-023c-5282-8f1d2b7c2b7b22bf.html. Rush County plans a 93-bed expansion. Frank
Denzier, “Commissioners Approve Architect Plans for New Jail,”
Rushville Republican, August 23, 2016,
	http://www.rushvillerepublican.com/news/local_news/
commissioners-approve-architect-plans-for-new-jail/
article_20518181-8bc9-5681-af6a-748401c234c4.html. Scott
County built a much larger jail. “Multi-million Dollar Scott Co. Jail
Expansion Underway,” WDRB, February 4, 2015,
	http://www.wdrb.com/story/28026111/multi-million-dollar-scottco-jail-expansion-underway. Morgan County built a 450-bed
expansion. Keith Clines, “Construction of Morgan County Jail
Addition Near Completion,” Decatur Daily, December 5, 2016,
	 https://perma.cc/H3R8-KG5F. Posey County built a 148-bed
expansion. “Posey Co. Jail Expansion is Well Underway,” 14 News,
March 9, 2017, http://www.14news.com/story/34712410/posey-cojail-expansion-is-well-underway.
64	 For a discussion on this issue see Mona Lynch, “Mass Incarceration,
Legal Change, and Locale,” Criminology & Public Policy 10, no. 3
(2011), 673-98.
65	See notes 39-40, above.
66	 The Adult Detention Initiative aims to reduce the jail population
through a variety of means, including reducing bench warrants
for people who do not appear in court and expediting cases
through processing. The Initiative also established a court reminder
program and a sign and release bench warrant pilot to improve
appearance rates and reduce the number of people sent to jail
for missing a court date for a low-level misdemeanor or traffic
violation. See Hennepin County Criminal Justice Coordinating
Committee, Adult Detention Initiative Fact Sheet (Minneapolis, MN:
Hennepin County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, 2016).
See also Chris Serres, “In New Push, Hennepin County Aims to Keep
Low-level Non-violent Offenders Out of Jail,” StarTribune, August 27,
2016, https://perma.cc/NBF4-CCY9.
67	 Minnesota Department of Corrections, “Historical Offender
Population Summary Reports,” https://perma.cc/V324-KD5U.
68	 Richard S. Frase and Kelly Lyn Mitchell, “Why Are Minnesota’s
Prison Populations Continuing to Rise in an Era of Decarceration?”

Federal Sentencing Reporter 30, no. 2 (2017), 114-24. Also see
Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Publications and Products: Prisoners,”
https://perma.cc/U3DM-GHY3; and Minnesota Department of
Corrections, Adult Prison Population Summary as of 1/1/2018
(St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Department of Corrections, 2017), 40,
https://perma.cc/EDE2-2VXN. For a discussion of Minnesota as an
exemplar of high probation and low imprisonment, see Michelle S.
Phelps, “Mass Probation: Toward a More Robust Theory of State
Variation in Punishment,” Punishment & Society 19, no. 1 (2017),
53-73, https://perma.cc/4ENN-SDK7. See also Ebony L. Ruhland
and Jason P. Robey, Probation Revocation and Its Causes: Profiles
of State and Local Jurisdictions, Hennepin County, Minnesota
(Minneapolis, MN: Robina Institute of Criminal Law & Criminal
Justice, 2016), https://robinainstitute.umn.edu/publications/
probation-revocation-and-its-causes-profiles-state-and-localjurisdictions-hennepin.
69	 Laws establishing felony penalties for driving while impaired and
domestic assault were passed in the early 2000s and continue
to contribute to higher rates of felony sentences. See discussion
in Frase and Mitchell, “Why Are Minnesota’s Prison Populations
Continuing to Rise?” (2017). Legislation enacted between 2010 and
2016 increased mandatory minimums for weapons offenses and
enhanced penalties for certain drug offenses, while the number of
people sentenced for felony convictions increased by 18 percent.
See Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, Minnesota
Felony Statutory Sentencing Enhancements Highlights from 1987 to
2017 (St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission,
2017), https://perma.cc/6R2X-PT22; and Minnesota Sentencing
Guidelines Commission, 2016 Sentencing Practices: Annual
Summary Statistics for Felony Offenders (St. Paul, MN: Minnesota
Sentencing Guidelines Commission, 2017), 5,
https://perma.cc/2HVL-8GDL.
70	 Hinds, Kang-Brown, and Lu, People in Prison in 2017 (2018); and
Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force, Final Report (Oklahoma City,
OK: State of Oklahoma, 2017), https://perma.cc/DUJ7-AZKY.
71	 D. Kent Meyers, Roger Strong, and Melanie Rughani, “Petition to the
Oklahoma Secretary of State to Amend Statutes to Reform Criminal
Sentences for Certain Property and Drug Offenses,” January, 27
2016, https://perma.cc/AP84-SBYY; D. Kent Meyers, Roger Strong,
and Melanie Wilson Rughani, “Petition to the Oklahoma Secretary
of State to Create the County Community Safety Investment
Fund,” January 27, 2016, https://perma.cc/E56Y-T4LF; and “State
Question 780 & 781: Criminal Justice Reform Measures Approved by
Voters,” Tulsa World, November 8, 2016, https://perma.cc/2JQHXN5J. See also Dale Denwalt and Justin Wingerter, “Oklahoma
Lawmakers OK Criminal Justice Reform Bills,” Oklahoman, April 25,
2018, https://perma.cc/WY5R-A86A.
72	 Both states have participated in the federal Justice Reinvestment
Initiative, a data-driven approach to criminal justice reform that
seeks to improve public safety, contain corrections costs, and
reinvest the savings in crime reduction strategies. See Council
of State Governments Justice Center, “Justice Reinvestment
Initiative,” https://perma.cc/XEQ6-CANE. For efforts in Arkansas,
see Council of State Governments Justice Center, “Arkansas,”
https://perma.cc/Q7KQ-FHKL. For efforts in West Virginia, see
Council of State Governments Justice Center, “West Virginia,”
https://perma.cc/5U6M-BZJA.
73	 For South Carolina, see Pew Center on the States, South Carolina’s
Public Safety Reform (Washington, DC: Pew Charitable Trusts,
2010), https://perma.cc/LL2R-2SZJ; and Public Safety Performance

Project, Data Trends: South Carolina Criminal Justice Reform
(Washington, DC: Pew Charitable Trusts, 2017), https://perma.cc/
LL2R-2SZJ. For New York, see analysis in “Decarceration: Cities lead
the way” at page 21 of this report.
74	 Zeng, Jail Inmates in 2016 (2018), at 2.

Acknowledgments
The authors would like to especially thank Nancy Fishman, Christian Henrichson,
and Ram Subramanian for their invaluable guidance in the report’s development;
Mary Crowley, Léon Digard, and Jim Parsons for their review and feedback; Maris
Mapolski and Cindy Reed for editing the report; Gloria Mendoza and Carl Ferrero
for the report’s design and layout; Julia Kuo for the cover illustration; and Khusbu
Bhakta for production support. A special thank you to Patrick Griffin of the
MacArthur Foundation for insight into the final document.
This report was created with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur
Foundation as part of the Safety and Justice Challenge initiative, which seeks to
address over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses
jails. Core to the challenge is a grants competition designed to support efforts to
improve local criminal justice systems in jurisdictions across the country. The
Foundation is supporting a nationwide network of selected local jurisdictions
committed to finding ways to safely reduce jail incarceration—particularly the
disproportionate incarceration of racial and ethnic minorities. More information is
available at www.SafetyandJusticeChallenge.org.
About Citations
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Internet, “link rot” has become a widely-acknowledged problem with creating useful and sustainable
citations. To address this issue, the Vera Institute of Justice is experimenting with the use of Perma.cc
(https://perma.cc/), a service that helps scholars, journals, and courts create permanent links to the online
sources cited in their work.

Credits
© Vera Institute of Justice 2018. All rights reserved. An electronic version of this report is posted on Vera’s
website at www.vera.org/the-new-dynamics-of-mass-incarceration.
Cover illustration: Julia Kuo
The Vera Institute of Justice is a justice reform change agent. Vera produces ideas, analysis, and research
that inspire change in the systems people rely upon for safety and justice, and works in close partnership
with government and civic leaders to implement it. Vera is currently pursuing core priorities of ending the
misuse of jails, transforming conditions of confinement, and ensuring that justice systems more effectively
serve America’s increasingly diverse communities. For more information, visit www.vera.org.
For more information about this report, contact Jacob Kang-Brown, senior research associate, at
jkangbrown@vera.org. For more information about Vera’s work to reduce the use of jails, contact Nancy
Fishman, project director at Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections, at nfishman@vera.org.

Suggested Citation

Jacob Kang-Brown, Oliver Hinds, Jasmine Heiss, and Olive Lu. The New Dynamics of Mass
Incarceration. New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2018.

The New Dynamics of Mass Incarceration

43

This report was created with support from the John D. and
Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as part of the Safety and
Justice Challenge, which seeks to reduce overincarceration by
changing the way America thinks about and uses jail

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