Four states lead U.S. prison population shrinkage

By Charles David Henry

Prison populations have been steadily declining as a result of criminal justice strategic reforms. This spectrum of change has been most notable in several states such as New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and California.

America still continues to maintain its distinction as the world leader in its use of incarceration. Today, more than 1.3 million people are still held in state prisons around the country, according to a report published by The Sentencing Project,

The growing awareness of America’s failed experiment with mass incarceration has prompted various changes at the state and federal level that aim to reduce the scale of imprisonment, the report noted. In addition, lawmakers and practitioners are proposing more “smart on crime” approaches to public safety that favor alternatives to incarceration.

To grasp these proposed changes, it’s important to understand the variation in racial and ethnic composition in America, since the majority of people in prison are sentenced at the state rather than the federal level. The report shows that nationally, 38 percent of state prisoners are black, 35 percent are white and 21 percent are Hispanic.

The Hispanic population in state prisons is as high as 61 percent in New Mexico and 42 percent in both Arizona and California. While such percentages reveal a degree of disproportion for people of color when compared to the overall general population (where 62 percent are white, 13 percent are black, and 17 percent are Hispanic), viewing the composition of prison populations from this perspective only tells some of the story.

The rate of incarceration for Hispanics is highest in Arizona, where 842 per 100,000 are in prison. The next highest rate of imprisonment is in Pennsylvania (668), followed by Idaho (619), Colorado (587) and Connecticut (583), it was reported.

Despite this high percentage of Hispanics in state prisons, Blacks are still incarcerated at a rate that is 5.1 times that of whites. This national outlook also shows Hispanics are held in state prisons at an average rate of 378 per 100,000, producing a disparity ratio of 1.4:1, the report adds.

Breaking down these figures by age and gender reveals dramatic findings. In 11 states, at least one in 20 adult Black males is in prison. As staggering as these figures are, they “do not even include incarceration in federal prisons or jails, which would generally increase the number of people by approximately 50 percent,” the report stated.

It was also reported that in “Oklahoma, the state with the highest Black incarceration rate in America, “one in 29 African American adults is in prison, and this reduces to one in 15 when restricted to Black males age 18 and older.”

“The data in this report document pervasive racial disparities in state imprisonment, and make clear that despite greater awareness among the public of mass incarceration and some modest successes at decarceration, racial and ethnic disparities are still a substantial feature of our prison system.”

The report’s “proposed explanations for disparities range from variations in offending based on race, to biased decision making in the criminal justice system, and also include a range of individual level factors such as poverty, education outcomes, unemployment history and criminal history.”

Harsh drug laws were clearly an important factor in the persistent racial and ethnic disparities observed in state prisons. From 1995 to 2005, African Americans comprised approximately 13 percent of drug users but 36 percent of drug arrests and 46 percent of those convicted for drug offenses, according to the report.

Even though the rapidity of change is relatively modest in addressing the scale of mass incarceration and the enduring racial and ethnic disparities, sentence reforms are being pursued across America, including in New Jersey. “As a result of the parole commissioner’s modification of the parole process, the number of parole grants increased from 3,099 in 1999 to 10,897 in 2001,” it was reported.

The Sentencing Project said “Reforms should be enacted that scale back the use of prison for low-level drug crimes and instead redirect resources to prevention and drug intervention programming.”

It also recommended that state and federal governments revise mandatory minimum sentences and other determinate sentencing systems that deny an individualized approach. 

Several states are pursuing racial impact legislation. “The idea behind racial impact laws is to consider the outcome of changes in the criminal code before passing laws in order to provide an opportunity for policymakers to consider alternative approaches that do not exacerbate disparities,” this report concluded.


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