CI: Essential Data/Graphics from Prison Policy Initiative

June 04, 2014 at 5:34 pm by: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Intersectionality, Prison Industrial Complex, What People are Doing to Change the World

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Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.

Essential Data/Graphics from Prison Policy Initiative 
Editor’s note by nancy a heitzeg

We are CI are indebted for the work of Prison Policy Initiative. In addition to their campaigns  against prison gerrymandering, the suppression of inmate rights to communication, and sentencing enhancement zones, they have recently provided a series of data sets/related graphs that offer clarity into the nature and scope of mass incarceration, both nationally  and at the state level.

pp1PNGIn the midst of claims that incarceration rates are falling and that the “tough on crime” era is over, the PPI data reveals the reality of a nation that still incarcerates at stunning rates, and with extreme racial dis proportionality. The majority of prisoners are located at the state level, and slight dips in national incarceration rate are driven almost exclusively by drops in New York and California, whose decline is both court-ordered and questionable. Other states continue to imprison at staggering levels with slight declines or steady rates despite clamors of “reform”.

The comprehensive portrait of our prison nation offered by PPI comes at time when clarity is most needed, and provides those committed to decarceration with the necessary tools to cut through the fog. With permission and  much gratitude,  CI is please to reprint excerpts from the following Prison Policy Initiative Briefings:

Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie A Prison Policy Initiative briefing By Peter Wagner and Leah Sakala March 12, 2014.

(click image for a larger view)

Now that we can, for the first time, see the big picture of how many people are locked up in the United States in the various types of facilities, we can see that something needs to change. Looking at the big picture requires us to ask if it really makes sense to lock up 2.4 million people on any given day, giving us the dubious distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world. Both policy makers and the public have the responsibility to carefully consider each individual slice in turn to ask whether legitimate social goals are served by putting each category behind bars, and whether any benefit really outweighs the social and fiscal costs. We’re optimistic that this whole-pie approach can give Americans, who seem increasingly ready for a fresh look at the criminal justice system, some of the tools they need to demand meaningful changes to how we do justice.

ppp5PNGBreaking Down Mass Incarceration in the 2010 Census: State-by-State Incarceration Rates by Race/Ethnicity, by Leah Sakala, May 2014

Over the last four decades, the United States has undertaken a national project of over criminalization that has put more than two million people behind bars at any given time, and brought the U.S. incarceration rate far beyond that of any other nation in the world. A closer look at which communities are most heavily impacted by mass incarceration reveals stark racial and ethnic disparities in U.S. incarceration rates in every region of the country.

Nationally, according to the U.S. Census, Blacks are incarcerated five times more than Whites are, and Hispanics are nearly twice as likely to be incarcerated as Whites:

ppp4The racial and ethnic make-up of incarcerated populations is dramatically different from that of the U.S. as a whole.

Social science research has time and again come to the robust conclusion that exposure to the criminal justice system has profound and intergenerational negative effects on communities that experience disproportionate incarceration rates. It is imperative that we are able to measure the extent to which the criminal justice system disparately impacts our communities.

Until 2006, researchers, advocates, and policymakers could rely on state-level race and ethnicity incarceration rate data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics “Prisons and Jails at Midyear” series. Unfortunately, these state-level statistics have not been updated in eight years. This report endeavors to meet this data need to the extent possible with existing data by using 2010 U.S. Census counts to measure each state’s incarceration rates by race and ethnicity. This report accompanies a web database of graphs and statistics with incarceration rates by race and ethnicity data for all 50 U.S. states…….

ppp6Tracking State Prison Growth in 50s States, by Peter Wagner, May 2014

Over the last three decades of the 20th century, the United States engaged in an unprecedented prison-building boom that has given our nation the highest incarceration rate in the world. Among people with experience in criminal justice policy matters, the “hockey stick curve” of the national incarceration rate is well known; but until now more detailed data on the incarceration rates for individual states has been harder to come by. This briefing fills the gap with a series of more than 100 graphs showing prison growth (and sometimes decline) for every state in the nation to encourage states to confront how their criminal policy choices undermine our national welfare.

Ending the U.S. experiment with mass incarceration requires us to focus on state policy because individual states are the most active incarcerating bodies in the nation:

ppp1Figure 1: Graph showing the number of people (per 100,000 national population at that time) that is confined in state, local and federal correctional facilities from 1925 to the present. State prisons are the largest part. (See larger or as raw numbers.)

Most (57%) people incarcerated in the United States have been convicted of violating state law and are imprisoned in a state prison…. Federal-level policy directly accounts for only the 10% of people behind bars in the U.S.; they have either been convicted of violating a federal law or are being detained by the immigration authorities and are awaiting potential deportation to anther country.

In the aggregate, these state-level policy choices have been the largest driver of our unprecedented national experiment with mass incarceration, but not every state has contributed equally or consistently to this phenomenon. In the U.S., each state is responsible for making its own policy choices about which people to lock up and how for long. We can’t end our nation’s experiment with mass incarceration without grappling with the wide variety of state-level criminal justice policies, practices and trends…………..

ppp2Figure 2: Focusing on only the national trend obscures the large and varied differences in both the pace and direction of state changes over time. (See larger.)

ppp3PNGFigure 3: For the last 30 years, there have been clear regional differences in states’ use of the prison, with the southern states relying on the prison the most often. (See larger.)

50 state incarceration profiles

These 50 state profiles, plus one for the United States as a whole, draw on graphs made from two Prison Policy Initiative briefings and other materials we have produced on those states.


Prison Policy Initiative is producing the best, most revelatory charts and infographics on the U.S. incarceration society.  Huge gratitude to them.

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg moderator

see also

Way Too Early to Declare Victory in War Against Mass Incarceration by Andrew Cohen, Oliver Roeder

t is far too early, as a matter of law, of policy, and of fact, to be talking about a “plummeting” prison rate in the United States or to be declaring that the end is in sight in the war to change the nation’s disastrous incarceration policies. There is still far too much to do, far too many onerous laws and policies to change, too many hearts and minds to reform, too many families that would have to be reunited, before anyone could say that any sort of “tipping point” has been spotted, let alone reached. So, to respond to Humphreys’ work, we asked Oliver Roeder, a resident economist at the Brennan Center for Justice, to crunch the numbers with a little bit more context and perspective. What follows below ought to shatter the myth that America has turned a corner on mass incarceration. The truth is that many states continue to experience more incarceration than before, the drop in national incarceration rates is far more modest than Humphreys suggests, and the trend toward reform could easily stop or turn back around on itself.


  1. […] So the problem in Ferguson, Missouri isn’t the extrajudicial execution by a local police officer of 18-year old Michael Brown, who was unarmed and had his hands up. The problem isn’t the fact that Brown’s murder constitutes part of a grotesque, racist national tapestry of killings of killing of unarmed people of color by police, security guards, and self-appointed white vigilantes.  The problem isn’t that law enforcement misconduct and abuse are endemic.  The problem isn’t racial profiling within a framework of white supremacy, or the criminalization of entire communities of color and U.S. race-based mass incarceration. […]