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Between 2007 and 2017, 34 States Reduced Crime and Incarceration in Tandem

Some still argue that increasing imprisonment is necessary to reduce crime. Data show otherwise.

It’s now been several decades since states around the coun­try began exper­i­ment­ing with crim­inal justice reform — specific­ally, by redu­cing the number of people behind prison bars. Now we can start to take stock of the results.

They’re encour­aging — but with the prison popu­la­tion still sky-high, there’s a lot more to do.

Between 2007 and 2017, 34 states reduced both impris­on­ment and crime rates simul­tan­eously, show­ing clearly that redu­cing mass incar­cer­a­tion does not come at the cost of public safety (for sources and defin­i­tions for crime data, see our latest crime report). The total number of sentenced indi­vidu­als held in state pris­ons across the U.S. also decreased by 6 percent over the same decade. And these drops played out across the coun­try.

Broad regional gains in safety and fair­ness

While it’s tempt­ing to focus on the South­ern states — which were some of the most notable early adop­ters of reform — reduc­tions in the last decade occurred across the board. The North­east saw the largest aver­age decline in impris­on­ment rate (24 percent), with only Pennsylvania record­ing an increase (3 percent). Crime rates also dropped fast­est in the North­east region, fall­ing by just over 30 percent on aver­age.

By contrast, the Midw­est saw impris­on­ment rates drop by only 1 percent on aver­age, and that modest reduc­tion was driven by Michigan (20 percent), where recent crim­inal justice reforms are focused on redu­cing recidiv­ism. With returns to prison down 41 percent since 2006, the state is home to one of the most compre­hens­ive statewide reentry initi­at­ives in the coun­try.

Notably, Massachu­setts recor­ded the steep­est decline in crime rate in the coun­try in this period (about 40 percent) while redu­cing the number of people convicted of non-viol­ent drug crimes in prison by 45 percent from 2008, cutting its over­all impris­on­ment rate roughly in half. In fact, across the coun­try, where the crime rate did fall, it fell faster, however slightly, in states with decreased impris­on­ment rates.        

Some states bucked the trend

It’s tough to say why some states success­fully reduced their prison popu­la­tion while others failed. One possible common­al­ity relates to socioeco­nomic well-being. Over half of the states where impris­on­ment rates grew had poverty rates above the national aver­age as well. Those states were also some of the hard­est hit by the opioid epidemic. West Virginia typi­fies this exper­i­ence: crime rates dropped, but incar­cer­a­tion rose amidst the state’s struggles with opioid abuse and poverty.

Opioid addic­tion may also explain a relat­ive lack of progress in Rust Belt states. In 2017, for example, Ohio and Pennsylvania exper­i­enced over­dose death rates of 46 and 44 per 100,000, respect­ively. Both saw prison rates remain stag­nant, as did nearby Kentucky, another state with high over­dose deaths. The trend is not clear, though, as other states strug­gling with addic­tion, such as Alaska, were able to success­fully cut their prison popu­la­tion.

Instead, the prob­lem in the Rust Belt may be a combin­a­tion of rising opioid addic­tion and a mistakenly, overly punit­ive response. Kentucky, for example, recently increased penal­ties for heroin traf­fick­ing and doubled penal­ties for crimes involving fentanyl.

Louisi­ana is also an inter­est­ing case. The state recently tried to tran­scend its grim distinc­tion as the nation’s lead­ing per-capita incar­cer­ator. Two years ago, Gov. John Edwards signed into law a sweep­ing pack­age of crim­inal justice reform bills with the goal of redu­cing prison popu­la­tions by 10 percent over 10 years. Despite that, Louisi­ana remains the nation’s lead­ing incar­cer­ator per capita. And despite declines in its prison popu­la­tion, the state’s crime rate also remains high.

Cause for optim­ism

The data clearly demon­strate that the United States’ prison popu­la­tion can be reduced without sacri­fi­cing the public safety gains of recent decades. Thirty-four states seem to have accep­ted this notion, as reflec­ted by their (often) sharp declines in rates of impris­on­ment.

Others lag far behind.

To this day, the United States impris­ons its citizens at a higher rate than any other West­ern demo­cracy. Though recent progress is surely encour­aging, at the current rate of decar­cer­a­tion it would take nearly 40 years to return to impris­on­ment rates observed in 1971 — the last time the national crime rate was this low. And some aspects of justice reform are moving back­wards. Accord­ing to one recent study, jail reform is a purely urban phenomenon, as rural incar­cer­a­tion rates are actu­ally increas­ing.

There’s no single solu­tion to mass incar­cer­a­tion. Instead, states must continue making efforts to reduce impris­on­ment. And the minor­ity of states that have not embraced decar­cer­a­tion need not look far to see that over­re­li­ance on incar­cer­a­tion is an inef­fect­ive and expens­ive means of keep­ing the public safe.

With research support from Sarah Eldiasty and Jake Gray.

(Image: Getty/Mats Silvan)