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Vera Analyzes Five Decades of Incarceration Trends

The Vera Institute of Justice has published an analysis of five decades of data on local jails and state prisons The information appears on its Incarceration Trends website, which Vera says is the most comprehensive look at the growth of mass incarceration through spring of this year. Even after an unprecedented decline in the population behind bars during the pandemic, says Vera's Jasmine Heiss, "the human and social cost of incarceration in the United States remains catastrophic. Black, Native, and Latinx people and poor people of all races and ethnicities are disproportionately criminalized and incarcerated. These trends are most pronounced in the nation’s rural counties.”

The biggest cities once had the highest rates of incarceration, but over the past several decades, jail incarceration and state prison admissions have declined in populous areas as they rose precipitously in smaller cities and rural communities. About two out of three people in local jails have not been convicted of a crime—many are being detained in civil matters, such as those incarcerated pretrial for immigration cases or those who can’t pay child support or fines and fees.

The updated analysis presented in Incarceration Trends highlights that the disproportionate criminalization and incarceration of people of color is most pronounced in rural counties, as is the rise of women’s incarceration.

The Vera data also features the rebound in jail incarceration after an unprecedented 14 percent drop in incarceration in the first half of 2020 (bringing the total incarcerated population from 2.1 million to 1.8 million people) in response to the spread of COVID-19. As of last spring state prison decarceration had stalled and jail populations continued to trend upward.

Among features on the website:

-- Analysis of the race, ethnicity, and gender of prisoners.

-- Visualizations of state incarceration trends across major metros, smaller cities, suburbs, and rural communities. -- Rankings of all counties in a state by the incarceration rate and growth of incarceration.

-- A visualization of each county’s jail population, with the most recently available data about what proportion is held pretrial, sentenced, and held on behalf of other authorities.

Rural areas have the highest jail incarceration rates by far, with more than half the people incarcerated in local jails being held outside of the biggest cities.

Vera concludes that "jail and prison population changes reflected a deepening of preexisting political, economic, and social orientations toward punishment and detention. Most states that had higher incarceration rates in early 2020 saw smaller decreases in incarceration through spring 2021."


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