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The Geography of Incarceration: Not Just an Urban Phenomenon

Redistricting reforms that count incarcerated people in the legislative districts they come from, rather than where they are imprisoned, handed statisticians a new tool to map where incarceration rates are highest. Following a series of reports on 12 states that now provide such data, the Prison Policy Initiative has published a summary that comes to this conclusion: "the idea that incarceration is a problem unique to big cities is a myth."

PPI's report details how the geographic spread of high incarceration rates maps onto the "primary drivers" of incarceration, including poverty, substance abuse, inadequate mental health care, and historic disinvestment in communities — none of which are exclusive to the nation's largest cites.

In the months leading to this week's publication of the national report, state-specific data generated media reports on patterns particular to certain states, such as California and Pennsylvania. The latest, on New York, by USA Today's New York State Team and published by the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, shows how the population of incarcerated people "has shifted dramatically" from New York City to upstate communities.

In 2000, about two-thirds of New Yorkers incarcerated in state prisons came from New York City's five boroughs. By 2010, that number had dropped to about half, and by 2020 to 42 percent. While some New York City neighborhoods see relatively high rates of incarceration, the highest numbers of people going to prison in New York come from places like Albany, Monticello, Newburgh and Rochester.

"It's no longer something we can brush off as a New York City problem," said Emily Widra, a senior research analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative and an author of the report. "It's really affecting the whole state and communities in every county."

The city of Rochester's incarceration rate of more than 1,050 people per 100,000 residents was more than five times the rate for New York City, and higher even than New York City neighborhoods with that city's highest rates.

Schenectady County has the highest rate of incarceration of any county in New York ― and District Attorney Robert Carney said that is mainly related to crime rates and urban density.

"We're appropriately dealing with the level of violence in our community by using prison as something that is done to protect the community from people who, if they were not incarcerated or incapacitated through incarceration, would be inflicting more harm on people," said Carney, who has been in office since 1990.

In 2019, Schenectady had the highest violent crime rate outside of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens, according to state Department of Criminal Justice Services preliminary data. Meanwhile, Schenectady had higher rates of total index crime and violent crimes with firearms, much like other upstate counties.

VOCAL-NY's civil rights campaign director, Nick Encalada-Malinowski, sees the numbers of incarcerated people coming from upstate communities as a reflection of politics. As New York City undertook reform with changes around sentencing — particularly with drug sentencing — other counties didn’t undergo as much change, he said.

“What’s happening for a lot of counties is they are incarcerating people rather than addressing any of their kind of immediate needs,” he said. “You have people especially in jail, but also in prison, just cycling through. No one’s actually addressing what got the person there.”

Jesse Jannetta, a senior policy fellow at the left-leaning think tank, the Urban Institute, said pushes toward lowering prison populations seen across the U.S. received support because of declining crime rates. Political shifts on perceptions of crime may change that, he said.

"It's a real open question about whether there's going to be a move to greater support for incarceration," he said. "We've learned a lot over that period about effective approaches to reducing gun violence that are focused and don't rely on broad use of incarceration."

Sandra Doorley, district attorney of Monroe County, which includes Rochester, acknowledged that public safety does not rely only on arrests and incarceration. “Together, we must continue to address the violence at its root causes," Doorley said. "With that being said, as the district attorney, it is my job to hold violent offenders accountable … Our city is in crisis and I refuse to sit by and watch it go up in flames.”

Rochester, a city of about 200,000 residents, last year saw 76 homicides, just a notch down from a record-breaking 81 killings in 2021.


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