Fact-checking the state’s incarceration rate
Massachusetts ranks low, but only if viewed in narrow context
In the debate over mandatory minimum sentences and corrections reform, those resisting major changes say there is little need for wholesale reform because the state incarceration rate is so low. The available data suggest they are correct, but only if that information is viewed in a narrow context.
Figures compiled by the US Department of Justice place Massachusetts 48th among the 50 states, with an incarceration rate of 192 per 100,000 residents. The number is somewhat deceiving because, unlike most states, Massachusetts sentences many of its convicted offenders to serve time in county facilities rather than in state prisons. It’s difficult to combine inmates in state and county facilities to get an accurate apple-to-apples comparison to other states because the federal government hasn’t released state county jail population estimates since 2006.
The Prison Policy Initiative provides a more accurate estimate of state incarceration rates by examining data from the 2010 Census. These counts show Massachusetts had 377 inmates in prisons or jails per 100,000 residents in 2010. By this estimate, Massachusetts still has a lower incarceration rate than all but five states (Maine, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, and Vermont).
There is a risk, however, in missing the true magnitude of the problem when looking only at the state’s overall incarceration rate because the incidence of incarceration has not been uniform across the population. Using the same 2010 Census data, the Prison Policy Initiative suggests the incarceration rate for non-whites in Massachusetts looks much more similar to the nation’s troubling figures. While the incarceration rate for white residents in the Commonwealth is about half the national average, the incarceration rate for black residents is about two-thirds of the US rate; for Hispanics, the Massachusetts incarceration rate exceeds the national rate by 12 percent.
Where the Commonwealth ranks globally has been open to interpretation. At a legislative hearing on mandatory minimums earlier this month, Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley suggested Massachusetts’ incarceration rate is closer to Western Europe’s than the rest of the United States.Using the more accurate figure of 377 inmates per 100,000 (and not the 192 per 100,000, which only includes those serving time in state prisons), Massachusetts’s incarceration rate is actually 2.5 times Spain’s, triple Canada’s, more than five times Germany’s, and seven times Japan’s.
Massachusetts hasn’t always had incarceration rates that are out of line with Western democracies. Since the 1980s, the Commonwealth has tripled its prison and jail population. MassINC’s look at the data for state prisons showed that half the increase was attributable to growth in inmates with governing offenses for drug crimes. And even these figures may understate the true extent to which the state’s criminal justice system has come to serve as a response to substance abuse. The most recent data show that, of male inmates leaving state prisons with a needs assessment, 81 percent had an identified need for substance abuse treatment. For years, federal surveys have also placed Massachusetts far higher than other states in illicit drug use. The current opiate crisis put this challenge into stark focus.
Benjamin Forman is the research director at MassINC, a public policy think tank and the publisher of CommonWealth. MassINC, working with the Criminal Justice Coalition, has been active in working for comprehensive criminal justice reform, including the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.