Ryan Spohn, director, Nebraska Center for Justice Research, University of Nebraska at Omaha
State incarceration rates were a fairly stable phenomenon until the 1970s, at which point incarceration rates began to skyrocket, peaking in 2008. These increases in incarceration occurred simultaneously with rising state crime rates, but continued unabated as crime rates leveled-off in the 1990s. Due to the high cost of incarceration, as well as the difficulties of individuals successfully reentering society, rates of incarceration have received significant attention from academics, state policymakers, and reformers alike. We use data from the Bureau of Justice Statistic’s National Prisoner Statistics report to compare rates of incarceration across states.
Our first observation is that rates of imprisonment per 100,000 persons vary substantially across states, from a high of 719 per 100,000 persons in Louisiana to a low of 120 per 100,000 in Massachusetts. Regional variations are also clearly apparent.
Incarceration rates tend to be highest in the southeastern states that represent the traditional Deep South portion of the nation. In contrast, five of the six lowest state incarceration rates are found in the New England region. The one exception is Minnesota, which ranks fifth lowest with an incarceration rate of 191 per 100,000 persons.
Interestingly, there is less of an urban/rural divide than might be expected. Some populous states such as New York, Illinois, and California actually have much lower incarceration rates than more rural states such as Oklahoma and South Dakota. The latter state incarcerates 453 persons per 100,000, which is much higher than many of its neighbors, such as Minnesota (191), North Dakota (226), and Nebraska (273). Criminologists have contributed South Dakota’s outlier status to a combination of “law and order” politics and an influx of many young, male, socially isolated individuals attracted to jobs created by the Bakken oil development.
Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Prisoner Statistics
Numbers are current as of December 31 of each year and refer to prisoners with a sentence of more than one year. State totals represent the state with the legal authority over a prisoner, regardless of where they’re detained.
Note that individual states’ enumeration methods changed over time in some instances. U.S. totals include prisoners under the jurisdiction of federal authorities. Counts shown for 2017 for New Mexico and North Dakota were imputed by BJS and are not comparable to prior years.