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US Prison Population Down, But Some States Buck Trend

By Kevin Penton | April 28, 2019, 8:02 PM EDT

There were nearly 20,000 fewer people in state and federal prisons in 2018 than in 2017, a 1.8% decline fueled by steeper decreases in states such as Missouri and New York — and offset by increases in 19 states, according to a newly released report.

The Vera Institute of Justice, a group that analyzed and compiled public data on prison populations, says that the 7.1 percent decrease in Missouri's incarceration rate was driven in part by efforts to elect prosecutors in St. Louis who have an eye on reforming the system.

"Our hope is that this report shows which states are following through and reducing the number of people that are locked up in prison — and which states are increasingly funneling people into our bloated justice system," the institute said in releasing the report Wednesday.

New York's 5.4% drop in its incarceration rate was its largest single-year decline since the mid-1960s, when the draft for the Vietnam War diverted individuals that otherwise may have ended up in jail, according to the report.

This time around, the reduction is fueled by various reform efforts, including a push for those convicted of crimes to spend more time on parole than behind bars, Jacob Kang-Brown, a senior research associate at Vera, told Law360.

"Hopefully the state will be able to continue closing prisons," said Kang-Brown, noting that there are already plans to shutter at least two in New York.

States such as Kentucky, Iowa and Indiana were among those that amassed more people behind bars between 2017 and 2018.

The number of people in prison increased in
19 states
in 2018: Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Indiana's Legislature passed a series of bills three years ago that were trumpeted as reforming the state's incarceration system, but its prisoner population increased by 900 in 2018, which Vera said is partly based on a change in how low-level felonies are handled and for longer sentences for violent offenses.

While those convicted of low-level felonies such as drug possession or issuing bad checks are now spending more time in county jails rather than Indiana state prisons, the bills also created new felony classes and longer sentences, leading to overcrowding in many sites throughout the state, according to Vera.

Officials with the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

In Kentucky, the incarceration rate increased nearly 1% in 2018, with 540 out of every 100,000 people behind bars, according to the statistics.

With a depressed economy that previously depended on coal, some regions of that state appear to look at prisons as part of their economic plans, with the state paying counties to house state inmates in county facilities, according to Vera. From 2011 to 2018, the number of state inmates held in local facilities increased 39%.

Nationwide, there were 1,471,200 people incarcerated in state and federal prisons on Dec. 31, 2018, a 1.3% decrease from a year earlier, according to the report, which is based on data compiled by state departments of corrections and the federal Bureau of Prisons.

Since 2008, the total prison incarceration rate in the United States is down 15%, according to the report.

The states with the highest incarceration rates were Louisiana, Oklahoma and Mississippi, at 695, 683 and 657 per 100,000 residents, respectively; the states with the lowest incarceration rates were Massachusetts, Minnesota and Maine, at 126, 180 and 181 per 100,000 people, according to Vera's report.

Of those three, Massachusetts and Minnesota saw significant decreases in 2018. Maine's incarceration rate increased slightly.

Massachusetts enacted a law last year that aimed to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug-related charges, send more people towards treatment programs rather than prison cells, and take income into account for bail and fees that are levied, among other provisions, the governor's office said at the time.

In Minnesota, recent changes include a new misdemeanor category for certain first-time offenses, and reductions in sentencing guidelines for other offenses. Yet while Minnesota's incarceration rate decreased 6.4%, the numbers of blacks behind bars did not significantly change, compared to a 7% reduction for whites, according to the report.

The changes in the North Star State also included increases for certain categories, such as marijuana possession, which may have resulted in whites faring better than blacks and other minorities overall, said Teresa Nelson, legal director of the ACLU of Minnesota.

While decriminalization of marijuana is a laudable goal, Nelson said, the ACLU and other reform advocates are also pushing for legislation that would create an intermediate category for marijuana possession, so individuals do not end up being charged with felonies for having relatively small amounts.

"At least having higher thresholds for what is considered a felony is a good step and would help reduce the prison population," she said.

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