The US Prison System Is Shrinking, but Very, Very Slowly

There were a lot of celebratory headlines after Attorney General Eric Holder announced a drop in the federal prison population last week, but the state-by-state numbers tell a more complicated tale.

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Sep 30 2014, 12:00pm

The federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas. Photo via Americasroof/Wikimedia Commons

Last Tuesday, outgoing US Attorney General Eric Holder used a speech in New York City to trumpet the news that the federal prison population dropped by about 4,800 inmates in the 12-month period ending September 30. That's the first decline since 1980, when Jimmy Carter was president and Americans were being held hostage in Tehran. That it took so long is kind of stunning given that crime rates have been nosediving nationally for decades now, according to the FBI. But better late than never, right?

Holder (who also announced his resignation last week) expects the number of people inhabiting federal facilities to drop by 12,000 over the next two years. Between the Justice Department making a major push to divert nonviolent offenders away from incarceration and a new effort to ease up on egregious mandatory minimum sentences, it's starting to feel like we've reached a pivotal moment when it comes to prison reform in this country.

"This is nothing less than historic," Holder gushed at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. "To put these numbers in perspective, 10,000 inmates is the rough equivalent of the combined populations of six federal prisons, each filled to capacity."

That definitely sounds like a big number, and reform advocates I spoke to were encouraged at the shift, even as they caution against getting too excited over one year's worth of data. It's worth keeping in mind that around this time last summer, we were celebrating a drop in the state prison population even as the federal numbers continued to edge upward. Now the reverse is true.

"It's a drop in the bucket when you look at the bigger picture,” Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, told me of the drop in federal prisoners. “The attorney general should be celebrating this trend, but he equated it with being able to close ten prisons, and that doesn't really square with our research. The facilities are so overcrowded that you'd have to reduce the population by 50,000 inmates just to get within capacity, and then only after that point could you reduce it to the point of actually closing prisons. So you're not going to be, like, saving any money or closing any prisons—it's still a great thing, but it's a step along the way."

Breaking down the numbers on a state-by-state basis shows that the picture is slightly more complex than "Prison Population Drops!" headlines would have you believe. According to the latest year-on-year numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics—which are different from the fiscal-year data touted by Holder—California, New York, and North Carolina both shed thousands of inmates in 2013. But part of what is going on in California was a response to a judge's ruling that state prisons were overcrowded and prisoners should be sent to local jails—a reminder that just because state or federal prison numbers are going up or down doesn't necessarily mean more or fewer people are behind bars. Kentucky, meanwhile, completely abandoned its investment in the for-profit prison racket last year.

Plenty of state prison populations continue to swell, however. Florida and Texas, for example, each added over 1,000 new inmates in 2013; Florida also put 100 more people in its private prison system, which now holds over 11,800 people. Arkansas jailed thousands more inmates, mostly because of new policies put into place in response to a repeat parole absconder being found responsible for the death of a teen. Add up all the states that boosted their totals and you get enough surplus prisoners to more than compensate for the meager federal reductions.

Experts I spoke to seemed to agree on one thing more than any other: It's almost impossible to know what causes the incarcerated population in the United States to change from year to year, and accounting methods vary between states and localities. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics numbers released earlier this month, for instance, do not include county-level stats (those come in the annual correctional population estimate each December). Last year's total—which measured the previous year, 2012—found 2,228,400 total people in American jails and prisons. Of course, that number excludes military and immigration detention centers, as well as facilities on Indian reservations. And it's worth noting that just 216,900 of those 2.2 million were in federal prisons.

So even if the feds are easing up a bit on the whole mass incarceration thing, local governments are more than capable of going rogue. Some of the worst prisons in the country, like New York's Rikers Island—where mentally ill inmates and teens, according to a recent investigation by Manhattan's US attorney's office, are routinely abused by guards—are largely beyond federal control. We got some good news on that front this week, as well, when the city's Department of Correction announced it would no longer put 16- and 17-year-olds in solitary confinement—starting at the end of the year. (Why they have to wait that long is a whole other story.)

Desptie all this, the decrease in the federal prison population is a long overdue (and welcome) development in the eyes of activists and academics who have been pushing back against the prison-industrial complex for years. It's a testament to reforms initiated by Holder, but also the US Sentencing Commission, which—with a bit of prodding from the attorney general—has started to look more and more like a real agent of change. The chief hold-up at this point seem to be the incentives at many levels of government to keep prisons packed. For prosecutors, the temptation to keep racking up convictions and long sentences is obvious. Likewise, for states and regions that are home to giant job-creating prisons, the economic boost and resulting tax revenue can be tough for local legislators to pass up.

"It's kind of a natural law, right?" La Vigne added. "The tendency to fill those prison beds is fierce, and there's always mechanisms—usually found at the prosecutorial level—where they find ways to subvert reform."

Still, it would be a mistake to discount what could be a seminal juncture in the dystopian odyssey that is American mass incarceration.

“There are lots of people who would like to see the prison population cut in half, and are disappointed that there hasn’t been a steeper drop,” Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project, told me. “But when you compare where things were headed to where they are now, there’s been a significant shift.”

That the federal prison pool has finally edged downward gives reform advocates hope that we’ve turned a corner—they hope the states will follow. After all, they've shown a capacity to cut down their own numbers as recently as two years ago.

“It’s a huge deal,” Gelb said. “The federal system and the state systems are behemoths—giant battleships that do not turn on a dime. And for both the state and the federal systems to have been expecting growth of tens of thousands of inmates and to now to be flattening out represents a major shift in the way this country approaches issues of crime and punishment.”

Follow Matt Taylor on Twitter.

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