New public data sheds light on prison population decline

Information broken down by race, gender, ethnicity

THE NUMBER OF people incarcerated in Massachusetts has dropped significantly over the last five years, from more than 17,000 in 2017 to 11,200 this year.

That’s just one a many findings available through a new searchable database released Thursday by the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, which includes an unprecedented amount of easily accessible information about how many people are incarcerated in Massachusetts and their demographics over the past five years. The information was released as part of a massive project mandated by the 2018 criminal justice reform law, which will eventually create a cross-tracking system to connect data from every part of the criminal justice system and let a person’s criminal record be tracked from arrest to parole.

“The Cross Tracking System reflects our administration’s commitment to improve criminal justice outcomes through inter-agency information sharing, data-driven policies, and transparent decision making,” said Gov. Charlie Baker in a statement. “Enhanced access to quality data will help us to better serve the community and advance the principles of a more fair and effective criminal justice system.”

But the new database does not completely satisfy researchers who have worried about the slow implementation of the cross-tracking system.

Ben Forman, research director at MassINC, the think tank that is the publisher of CommonWealth, said the information falls short of what researchers and policy experts want to see. Much of the information is “data we’ve had for 10 years presented differently,” he said. “If you hand in your paper five years late and its half written, what would you say to the professor? The other half is coming soon, give me a good grade?”

Forman said the demographic data is new, but the population counts are information that was always available, just presented in an easier-to-use format. Eventually, he said, researchers want access to anonymized data sets that let them see how an individual progresses through the justice system. This would let them answer questions like how particular treatment programs affect recidivism rates and whether there are sentencing variations by race and ethnicity.

Administration officials say even getting this far is a major accomplishment. The online data consolidates 9.4 million records submitted by the Department of Correction and 14 sheriffs’ departments, dating back to January 2017. It is the culmination of the first phase of the cross-tracking system project, which involved developing regulations around standard data definitions and other issues and collecting initial data from correction officials. The dashboard lets users distinguish between pre-trial and sentenced populations and see demographic subsets of the populations by sex, race, ethnicity, and age.

Future phases of the project will improve data flow between agencies, then incorporate the record systems of the Trial Court, Probation, Parole, and state and local police departments. Eventually, the plan is to expand the public website to include real-time data and information about specific offenses.

“It is difficult to overstate the scope and immense complexity of this groundbreaking project,” said Public Safety and Security Secretary Terrence Reidy. “The publication of this data tool marks the culmination of an intense process that required remarkable levels of engagement and participation from countless stakeholders.”

The new data chronicles a decrease in the number of people incarcerated from January 1, 2017, when there were 8,875 county prisoners and 8,158 state prisoners, through January 1, 2022, when there were 5,948 county prisoners and 5,316 state prisoners. The biggest drop was between 2020 and 2021 – likely due to court closures and policies that led to incarcerating fewer people during the COVID pandemic, as well as the implementation of the 2018 criminal justice reform law.

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

The data also breaks out demographic details of incarcerated people, including county of incarceration, gender, race, and age range. As of January 1, 2022, 95 percent of people in jails and prisons were male and 42.3 percent were white. The female prison population tends to be whiter than the male prison population. In Suffolk County on January 1, 2022, there were more Black and Hispanic men incarcerated (449 and 248, respectively) than white men (203). But there were more white women incarcerated (120) than Black or Hispanic women (36 and 28, respectively). Across all state and county facilities, 66 percent of incarcerated women were white compared to 41 percent of men.

During the five years, despite growing awareness of racial disproportionalities in the criminal justice system, the percentage of incarcerated men who were white actually decreased over time. Between 2017 and 2019, the percentage of incarcerated men who were white hovered around 45 percent. It dropped to 42.2 percent in 2020 and fell to between 40 and 41 percent each of the next two years.

As of January 1, 2022, there were 4,388 white men in Massachusetts jails and prisons, 3,012 Black men, and 2,953 Latino men. There were several counties in which the number of Black or Latino men incarcerated topped the number of white men: Hampden and Essex counties incarcerated more Latino men than white men, while Suffolk County incarcerated more Black and Latino men.