Projects: Incarceration Trends
Incarceration Trends aims to inform the public debate on mass incarceration and help guide change by providing easily accessible information on the prevalence of incarceration in every county in the United States. The centerpiece of the project is a new data tool—available at trends.vera.org—that collates and analyzes publicly available, but disparately located, data about incarceration. This tool can be used for reference and measurement by policymakers and others looking to understand incarceration in their county, how it has changed over time, and how it compares to others.
Users of this tool will be able to spot problem areas within their own jail—such as excessive growth or racial or ethnic disparities—as well as identify other localities with similar characteristics to study as comparisons. It currently includes jail data for the approximately 3,000 counties that use a local jail and, for New York and California, the number from each county that are in a state prison. In the months ahead, Vera will incorporate additional prison data for the other 48 states.
Why study incarceration at the local level?
Research on mass incarceration usually centers on state-level data: state prison populations or the statewide combined prison and jail population. Using the state as the unit of analysis is sufficient for understanding the broad contours of incarceration in the United States, but it does not provide the level of detail necessary to help policymakers reduce the use of incarceration. This is because, although state law dictates criminal penalties, these laws are interpreted and deployed in practice by police, prosecutors, judges, and others at the local level (counties and cities). Therefore, county-level data, and specifically data on how counties use the local jail, are fundamental to a thorough understanding of the justice system.