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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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Larry Mayes Larry Mayes Scene of arrest, The Royal Inn, Gary, Indiana. Police found Mayes hiding beneath a mattress in this room. Served 18.5 years of an 80-year sentence for Rape, Robbery, and Unlawful Deviate Conduct, 2002. Chromogenic print, 48 x 60 inches (121.9 x 152.4 cm), Edition of 5. © Taryn Simon

It probably doesn’t need me to tell you that The Marshall Project launched this week.

Ever since Bill Keller announced his departure, after 30 years, from the New York Times to take up the editor in chief role at the Marshall Project, people have wondered what could possibly emerge from within a new “nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering America’s criminal justice system.”

Early output is good.

STAFF & STORIES

Pre-launch, The Marshall Project published two pieces of investigation — Dana Goldstein wrote about youth corrections in West Virginia; and Maurice Possley recovered and uncovered the startling facts of Cameron Todd Willingham‘s wrongful conviction and execution.

Upon launch, Ken Armstrong looked at a legal quirk that literally effects life and death (Parts One and Two). Keller and managing editor Tim Golden interviewed outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder about many things including his attitude toward the death penalty.

Lisa Iaboni revisited Taryn Simon’s groundbreaking series The Innocents, for which Simon asked wrongfully accused men following their exoneration to pose for portraits at the sites of alibi, crime or with the original victims of the crime.

I interpret these three features as not coincidental to one another. The documented mistakes in the application of the death penalty — and the consequent murder-by-the-state of innocent people — is a barometer to shortcomings in the wider criminal justice system. Stories of life and death usual force people to sit up and take notice.

Elsewhere on the site, Andrew Cohen‘s been busy examining racial disparity in policing in the aftermath of Ferguson, the crisis in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and asking if mass incarceration is going away.

John Lennon speaks to a case of aging in Attica; Simone Weischelbaum looks at improvised make-up (fake-up) in women’s prisons; and Ivan Vong has produced an interactive of all the stats associated with the U.S. criminal justice system.

The team of journalists assembled is impressive. The visuals should be good too. One of the two managing editors is Gabriel Dance who won a Pulitzer Prize with The Guardian for his team’s data visualisation of the NSA leak. Probably the best way to acquaint yourself with the people is with this Twitter list of Marshall Project Staff.

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DOLLARS & DOING

The great unknown about this venture is the money. It’s not likely journalism grants will cover the great expense to cover investigative reporting on these matters. Money from super-wealthy individuals will play a key part. Here’s what we do know.

Thus far, the Marshall Project has partnered with Slate and the Washington Post and plans to team with other established media as and when needed to amplify the reach of the reporting. The Marshall Project has hit the ground sprinting and I’m intrigued by the possibilities. In some ways, I am surprised it has taken so long for a single issue outfit focused on criminal justice to emerge. The need has been around for a long time.

There’s lots more to come and you’re probably wise to sign up for their email blast Opening Statement.

Here’s some of Keller’s launch statement:

We are not here to promote any particular agenda or ideology. But we have a sense of mission. We want to move the discussion of our institutions of justice — law enforcement, courts, prisons, probation — to a more central place in our national dialogue. We believe, as the great jurist Thurgood Marshall did, that protection under the law is the most fundamental civil right in a free society. Yet, by the numbers, the United States is a global outlier, with a prison population matched by no nation except, possibly, North Korea, with a justice system that disproportionately afflicts communities of need and of color, with a corrections regime that rarely corrects.

We aim to accomplish our mission through probing, fair-minded journalism, combining investigative rigor, careful analysis, and lively storytelling. We will examine the failings of our criminal justice system — but also test promising reforms. While a number of news organizations are doing distinguished reporting on crime and punishment, the journalistic energy devoted to this kind of reporting — time consuming and expensive as it is — has been sapped by the financial traumas of the news industry. Our aim is both to restore some of that lost energy and to be a catalyst for coverage elsewhere. We will publish the fruits of our reporting here and expand our audience by collaborating with first-rate newspapers, magazines, broadcasters and other online news sites.

In addition to our original reporting, we will compile the most interesting news and commentary from around the world of criminal justice, distributing our findings in our daily email, and offering this site as a hub for debate and accord. We are nonpartisan and non-ideological, which means you will find here the voices of progressives and conservatives, centrists and provocateurs. As it happens, criminal justice is one of the few areas of public policy where there is a significant patch of common ground between right and left.

Keller closes his welcome with an invitation to respond in the ‘Letters to the Editor’ feature. Get writing.

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