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

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Sep 22 11:28:15 EDT 2015

September 22, 2015

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

by James Kilgore <http://www.counterpunch.org/author/james-kilgore/>


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 

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
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 
<http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1620970678/counterpunchmaga>/will be 
published by The New Press in September. He can be contacted at 
waazn1 at gmail.com <mailto:waazn1 at gmail.com>/

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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