On one hand, the number of inmates in federal prisons is finally starting to decline. On the other hand, the total number of inmates in state prisons is creeping back up after four years of decline — and those state increases more than offset the decrease at the federal level.
But even the aggregate numbers don't tell the whole story. Some states reduced their prison populations in 2013, while others didn't. And much of the upward trend this year was caused by rising prison populations in a few big states — states that had been working to shrink their prisons in the past, but fell off pace this year.
The Brennan Center for Justice has done some analysis of the new state-prison data. They put together this map that shows how much states reduced — or increased — their incarceration rates in 2013:
State-by-state change in imprisonment rate
On the Brennan Center's website, the map is interactive — highlighting information about what's included in each state's prison counts, and what isn't. Some of that information offers hints as to what drove the changes in each state — but it takes a little more digging to get the whole story.
Arkansas, for example, had the biggest spike — imprisoning 17 percent more of its population in 2013 than in 2012. The Brennan Center site notes that "changes made to the state's parole system" in summer 2013 caused the increase.
Adam Gelb, the director of the Pew Public Safety Performance Project, points to the reason for those changes: May 2013, an Arkansas man who was out on parole kidnapped a teenager from a convenience store and killed him. The crime caused the state government to panic about the laxity of its parole system — which had actually been expanded as part of a criminal-justice reform bill in 2011.
The Arkansas parole board quickly passed reforms that made it much harder for parolees to get released, and much easier for them to get their parole revoked and get sent back to prison. The combination of fewer prisoners getting released on parole, and more prisoners coming back after violating it, drove the sudden increase.
No state has a jump as dramatic as Arkansas'. But for some states, the surprising thing is that the prison population increased at all. Texas, for example, has gotten a lot of press for criminal-justice reform bills it passed in 2007 and 2011, and is often cited as a model by conservative proponents of prison reform. So it came as a surprise when the federal government reported that Texas' imprisonment rate had gone up 1 percent from 2012 to 2013.
Again, the Brennan Center text gives a hint to what's going on: the federal government counts any facility owned and operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice as a prison. But some of those are actually treatment facilities for nonviolent drug offenders — what Texas calls "intermediate sanction facilities."
According to Pew's Gelb, Texas doesn't believe it's fair to count those as prisons; the federal government does; they've been going back and forth about this for a couple of years. But the increase in Texas' prison rate in 2013 is based on the federal stats, which count the treatment facilities as prisons.
The upshot: just because a state's incarceration rate rose in 2013 doesn't mean its prison-reform efforts aren't working — but it might. Texas' increase isn't an indication that the bills it passed in 2007 and 2011 aren't serving their intended purpose of reducing the prison population. But Arkansas' increase is because some of the changes made to the criminal justice system in 2011 have been undone.