clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Bad news: outside California, America isn't actually sending fewer people to prison

In all the debates about the criminal justice system and mass incarceration over the past several years, there has been one bright spot: For the first time in decades, fewer people are going to prison.

Or so we thought.

In a new analysis, criminologist John Pfaff takes a look at just how meaningful the drop in the US prison population is. When including California, it is certainly true that the US prison population has fallen. But when looking at states outside of California (which was forced to reduce its prison population through a court order), the numbers are more mixed: It is true that the number of people in prison on any given day is lower than it used to be — but more people are actually going to prison.

How is this possible? Pfaff goes through this in a tweetstorm, but here's the gist: While people are apparently serving shorter sentences, more people are being admitted and cycling through the prison system.

So although fewer people are in prison on any given day, more people are still dealing with the terrible consequences of getting caught up in the justice system, particularly a criminal record that makes it harder to get a job, vote, get housing, and much more.

What's worse, admissions into prison seem to be going up even as the country goes through a nationwide crime drop — and the research shows that mass incarceration has only played a small role, if any, in the crime drop over the past several years.

The research, drop in crime, and heavy financial and social costs of mass incarceration have pushed political leaders and activists from both parties to call for criminal justice reform. But Pfaff's analysis shows that it's not enough, as most reform has only focused on shortening prison sentences. The actors in the criminal justice system — especially prosecutors — also need to start sending fewer people to prison, especially for crimes that don't warrant such a serious punishment. And if they aren't willing to do it, maybe lawmakers and the public should take steps to force them to be less aggressive.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.