The Politics of Mass Incarceration: Latest Stats Show Nano-Scale Reform Remains the Dominant Trend

Last week the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) published their annual census of the nation’s prison population. After over three decades of uninterrupted yearly increases, 2014 was the fourth year in the last five in which the total number of people in Federal and state prisons fell. The figure declined from 1,576,950 to 1,561,525, a drop of about 1%. The some 700,000 people held in local jails were not included in these stats.

This news from the BJS will please those who see opportunity in the increasing acknowledgement of mass incarceration in the political sphere. Proclamations by the President, Hillary Clinton as well as statements by arch-conservative forces as diverse as Rand Paul, Newt Gingrich and the Koch brothers have placed criminal justice on the electoral agenda. In 2012 no candidate made even passing mention of the two million people in the US behind bars. For anyone seeking to reverse the debacle of the US’ incarceration obsession, any decrease in the number of people behind bars is welcome. Yet a closer look at the BJS stats shows that reform remains miniscule. The overall landscape reflects the ongoing tension between the continuity of mass incarceration and the need for change. The data actually remind us that the fate of the criminal justice system has yet to be decided.

Nonetheless, there is a bit of good news in these numbers. Sentencing reform at the national level, along with other changes, did contribute to a fall in the Federal prison population of just over 5,000. However, even with this drop, Federal facilities still held 2,449 more people at the end of 2014 than they did in 2009. Moreover, media pundits often fail to note that the Feds hold only about 14% of the nation’s prisoners. Action by the Congress or even from the President has little impact on the state-based departments of corrections which house 86% of prisoners.

At the state level, the surprising star of decarceration for 2014 was Mississippi. Through a combination of numerous reforms, many encapsulated in HB 585, the state prison population fell by a whopping 14.5%, amounting to about 20% of the national fall. While noteworthy, this performance was largely driven by one-off changes in sentencing and parole which won’t
61HFKSwNxsL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_continue to yield massive annual reductions. Yet, even with a 14.5% fall, Mississippi remains the fifth highest state in terms of per capita incarceration rates. There is still a long way to go in Jackson.

When we turn our attention to other states, a mixed picture emerges, particularly if we move our lens away from a simple focus on year-on-year national figures. For 2014, out of the 49 states recorded, 31 showed changes of 2% or less, 15 of 1% or less. More importantly, not all populations declined . While 26 states showed decreases, 23 upped their populations, with Arizona leading the way by adding more than 1000 prisoners to its carceral rolls. Examining state trends since the peak national prison population of 2009 shows a similarly uneven result. During that time the national prison population fell by just over 52,000 or about 3.5%. Yet 26 states have increased their prison populations since 2009. A closer look at the declines during that period reveals that California accounted for about 35,000 of that national drop. The California reductions came about largely due to a response to a Federal court order to decarcerate. But even the California cutbacks contain hidden contradictions, since many of those in state prisons were simply moved to county jails or transferred to out of state private facilities rather than released. Furthermore, to accommodate that change California has allocated $500 million to counties for jail expansion as well as putting together financial packages. More people behind bars in the future looks to be in the cards for California.

In the long-term, only two states have demonstrated a serious commitment to decarceration: New York and New Jersey. Since 2000, the New York state prison census has decreased every year but one. Relaxed drug law enforcement combined with massive diversion of people into programs rather than jail has led to the closure of 11 prisons in the state and an overall fall in the incarcerated population of about 25%. New Jersey has followed a similar path, producing a population decline of 24% in the same period. Still, New York and New Jersey are outliers. The dominant trend remains a politically expedient perpetuation of the status quo. If the national prison population continues to fall at the rate of 1%, Marc Mauer, Director of the Sentencing Project has estimated it will take 88 years to reach per capita rates of 1980. The polar ice caps are melting faster than our prison system is shrinking.

Ultimately, policy talk about mass incarceration in most quarters glosses over the real challenges. Politicians may take the lead in proclaiming the success of their sentencing reforms or new policies on parole, but a deeper look shows that we have not come very far and much of what is on the table will not take us much farther. While the “tough on crime” approach captured the hearts, minds and budgetary allocations of every state legislature and department of corrections in the 1980s, the critique of prison expansion and carceral over spending has not garnered a similar national or local consensus. The rhetoric about the evils mass incarceration may be proliferating but it is not accompanied by the kind of media efforts to popularize the issue that characterized the 1980s. In those days, even Michael Jackson was doing ads for the War on Drugs. Without a concerted effort to create mind set change, contradictory, underfunded nano-scale reform will remain the order of the day.

At the practical level, transformative change requires at least two things which are not on the agenda in most states. First comes the recognition that we cannot significantly reduce prison populations by concentrating on those with non-violent drug cases. This cohort constitutes about 16% of the state prison population. Ending mass incarceration means taking responsibility for the fact that mass incarceration has locked people up unfairly in a systematic way. The majority of those behind bars are not there because of bad personal choices. Legal and policy frameworks as well as budget cuts have been formulated to make the pipeline to prison their most likely path. Absurdly long sentences and disproportionate charging need to be re-visited and addressed with retroactive measures to free those who have already served far longer than any just system should reasonably punish them.

Second, political leaders and the public at large need to recognize that genuinely reversing mass incarceration will not save billions of dollars. We need to undo the harm done to millions of people who have been wrongly imprisoned for excessive terms and to the communities from which they come. These communities have suffered the punishment of population loss, over-policing and cutbacks in social service provision. Mass incarceration has come hand in hand with mass criminalization of poverty, mass immiseration. Addressing this means closing prisons and jails and ploughing the money saved into an urban, anti-racist “New Deal” process to provide public housing, substance abuse treatment, mental health services and employment opportunities to the millions who have been negatively impacted by the war-like policies of law enforcement and corrections across the country. Ending mass incarceration ultimately must come hand in hand with, dare I say it, a new war- one against poverty , inequality and the notion that excessive punishment makes us safe.

James Kilgore is a writer and activist based in Urbana, Illinois. He spent six and a half years in prison. During those years, he drafted three novels which have been published since his release in 2009. His latest book, Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Era will be published by The New Press in September. He can be contacted at