Interactive Tool Reveals Counties, Not Cities, Lock Up the Highest Proportions Of People

We’ve known for a long time that state prisons have been built more often in rural areas than in urban areas; that prisons have been job creators in post-industrial America. We also have known that county jails have been built and expanded, too in the era of mass incarceration.

What we have not known, until now, is that county jails in rural areas have been doing much of the heavy lifting in terms of warehousing America’s prisoners.

The distinction between state prisons and county jail is important. When the state sentences someone they are free to ship them anywhere in the state. But when a county sentences someone, or a state sentence is two years or less, the time is served in the county in which the offense occurred. So, one would expect that incarceration rates across counties would be fairly uniform. Also, if the stereotype of the more dangerous urban milieu is to be upheld, we might expect higher rates of incarceration in urban counties. Not so.

A remarkable study by the Vera Institute In Our Own Backyard: Confronting Growth and Disparities in American Jails, reveals that incarceration has grown the most outside of the largest counties and the largest cities.

“While the largest jails—such as those in NYC, LA, and Cook County, often draw the most attention and are the ones most often discussed by policymakers and the media, Vera found that these jails have not grown the most, nor are they among the ones with the highest incarceration rates,” explains Vera Institute.”

Instead, mid-sized and small counties have largely driven growth. Generally, jail populations growing faster than prison populations. 

Overall, there has been more than a four-fold increase in the number of people held in jail, from 157,000 to 690,000, since 1970.

“Large counties [jail rates] grew by 2.8 times, while mid-sized counties more than quadrupled, and small counties experienced almost a seven-fold increase,” reports the Vera Institute.

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A VISUALISATION TOOL FOR US ALL

In addition to the surprising results of the report is the way in which Vera Institute has rolled out the findings. They’ve launched an interactive tool.

In the video at the top of this post, Vera Researcher Christian Henrichson discusses the Incarceration Trends tool.

We’ve known for a some years that the data for open and manipulable interactives has been available, but verifying the data, filling in the absent data (which happens a lot through different jurisdictions) and then standardising the data for a software program to convert it to user friendly format takes a lot of time, some cash and a good amount of skills. Vera Institute’s work here should propel us forward.

I contend that data visualisation is as essential, if not more so than photography in terms of informing citizens about the prison industrial complex.

In journalism, Gabriel Dance, at the Marshall Project, is making strides in presenting data for the public, for example Next One To Die. In advocacy, the Prison Policy Initiative has done much in wrangling data on county, state, federal, ICE and private facilities. In art, Josh Begley’s Prison Map and Paul Rucker’s Proliferation have both tried to present the terrifying growth of the PIC in ways that engage gallery goers and screen viewers alike. (It should be noted both Rucker’s work are based on the PPI data.) I’m certain there are other practitioners in these fields and more trying to present data and imagery in engaging ways for us out here.

OTHER VERA INSTITUTE FINDINGS

Within the surprising city/county upturn of conventional wisdom, are these two disturbing trends:

  • African Americans make up nearly 40 percent of the jail population. African Americans have the highest incarceration rates, particularly in mid-sized and small counties.
  • Female incarceration rates have skyrocketed, and are highest in the smallest counties. Since 1970, there has been more than a 14-fold increase in the number of women held in jail, from fewer than 8,000 women in 1970 to 110,000 women in 2014.

DATA HAS THE RIGHT TO PEOPLE

Essential to criminal justice reform efforts is reliable information. The Vera’s Incarceration Trends tool provides easy comparisons on incarceration data for counties nationwide.

I anticipate this new tool will prepare the public, inform legislators and arm activists. As Henrichson encourages, go check out what’s happening in your county

Read the report in full In Our Own Backyard: Confronting Growth and Disparities in American Jails. Check out the accompanying fact sheet, and visit trends.vera.org to research yourself.

More coverage: Who is Putting the Most People in Jail? Not New York, Chicago, or LA. (The Marshall Project)

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