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States Sending the Most People to Prison

Michael B. Sauter, Samuel Weigley, Alexander E.M. Hess

Last year, 1.57 million Americans served prison sentences in state or federal penitentiaries, a slight decrease from nearly 1.6 million in 2011, according to figures released Thursday by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). Despite the decline, the United States still incarcerates people at a higher rate than anywhere else in the world.

According to the BJS report “Prisoners in 2012,” for every 100,000 Americans, an estimated 480 people were serving at least a one-year sentence in a state prison during the year. In some states, the rate of incarceration was much higher. Louisiana, the state with the highest rate, sentenced 893 people to a state prison for every 100,000 residents. Based on the BJS release, 24/7 Wall St. identified the states that send the most people to prison.

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As might be expected, states that had more people in their prison systems tended to have higher crime rates. Seven of the states with the highest incarceration rates were in the top 15 for murder rates, and overall violent crime rates were generally higher in these states as well. The states with high incarceration rates also tended to have high property crime rates. Of the 10 states on this list, eight had the highest burglary rates in the country.

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While the causes of higher crime rates are difficult to determine, these states often shared some of the risk factors that appear to make their populations more likely to commit crimes. The states were among the most impoverished in the country, a factor commonly associated with crime. Residents of these states were also among the least likely to have graduated from high school, another factor often linked to higher crime rates.

But higher crime rates do not tell the whole story. In an interview with 24/7 Wall St., John Roman, Senior Fellow at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, explained that each state’s policies on enforcement are a major factor. “It really is a political choice,” he said.

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There are several sentencing policies that can dramatically increase the number of inmates in a state’s prison system. According to Roman, such policy is mandatory minimum sentencing, which requires a minimum predetermined prison sentence length, regardless of the circumstances of the crime, tend to have larger prison populations. Roman also pointed to three-strikes laws, which impose much longer sentences on criminals who have committed three or more serious crimes.

“Take Texas,” said Roman. "Texas has some of the safest cities in America. You wouldn’t expect it to have a high incarceration rate, but it is third in the country.” Texas was notably the first state to adopt a three-strikes law. Most of the states on this list, he added, have a history of policies that are harsher on crime. For example, while much of the Northeast has begun to relax drug enforcement policies, the states on this list have kept strict drug enforcement in place.

To identify the states sending the most people to prison, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the states that had the most inmates in each state’s prison jurisdiction per 100,000 residents. The data come from Bureau of Justice Statistics’ “Prisoners in 2012” report. To be in a state’s jurisdiction, a prisoner needed to be sentenced within the state, not necessarily incarcerated there. We also reviewed educational attainment, income and poverty statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau for 2011. We also considered state crime rates from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, also for 2011. All data was for the most recent available period.

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These are the states sending the most people to prison.

10. Idaho
> Sentenced prisoners: 499 per 100,000 residents
> Total sentenced prisoners: 7,985 (19th least)
> Violent crime rate: 200.9 per 100,000 residents (6th lowest)
> Poverty rate: 16.5% (19th highest)

In 2012, 499 people were incarcerated for every 100,000 residents of Idaho, up from 487 a year earlier. Of the nearly 8,000 sentenced prisoners in the state, 1,008 were women, an increase of 13.9% from the prior year, among the highest growth rates in the country. Unlike most states with high incarceration rates, Idaho had a relatively low crime rate. It had the sixth-lowest violent crime rate and the lowest robbery rate in the country. Idaho also had the fourth-lowest property crime rate in 2011.

9. Missouri
> Sentenced prisoners: 518 per 100,000 residents
> Total sentenced prisoners: 31,244
> Violent crime rate: 447.4 per 100,000 residents (12th highest)
> Poverty rate: 15.8% (24th highest)

In 2012, there was one person serving a sentence of more than one year for every 200 Missouri residents. But unlike much of the rest of the country, Missouri’s prison population actually rose 1.3% in 2012. Somewhat alarming, the state is running out of prison space and, as of late July, had room for just 100 more inmates before reaching full capacity, according to CBS St. Louis. Officials contend the state can handle more inmates. However, Missouri’s violent crime rate, among the highest in the county as of 2011, means any open spaces are quickly filled.

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8. Florida
> Sentenced prisoners: 524 per 100,000 residents
> Total sentenced prisoners: 101,930 (3rd most)
> Violent crime rate: 515.3 per 100,000 residents (8th highest)
> Poverty rate: 17.0% (17th highest)

The number of people in Florida serving prison sentences fell from 537 per 100,000 in 2011 to 524 in 2012. Experts attributed the drop to a decrease in the state’s crime rate. Nevertheless, Florida had the eighth-highest violent crime rate in 2011, with more than 515 crimes committed per 100,000 residents. Specifically, Florida’s robbery and aggravated assault rates were both the ninth highest of all states. Despite the large prison population, Florida closed 10 correctional facilities in 2012, more than any other state.

7. Georgia
> Sentenced prisoners: 542 per 100,000 residents
> Total sentenced prisoners: 53,990 (5th most)
> Violent crime rate: 373.2 per 100,000 residents (21st highest)
> Poverty rate: 19.1% (5th highest)

Although the number of sentenced prisoners in Georgia stayed roughly the same in 2012 as it was in 2011, the number of female inmates declined 7.1%, compared to a 2.3% drop across the country. While Georgia had close to average violent crime rates in 2011, it had the fourth-highest property crime rate in the country. The state is home to a high number of poor individuals who are at higher risk of committing crime and being incarcerated. The poverty rate of 19% in 2011 was higher than all but four other states. Meanwhile, the percentage of people without a high school diploma was among the top third of all states.

6. Arizona
> Sentenced prisoners: 583 per 100,000 residents
> Total sentenced prisoners: 38,402 (10th most)
> Violent crime rate: 405.9 per 100,000 residents (19th highest)
> Poverty rate: 19.0% (tied for 7th highest)

Arizona had 583 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 residents as of 2012, well above the national rate of 418 per 100,000. The state also had among the most sentenced female prisoners relative to population of any state, at 101 per 100,000 female residents. Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office processes at least 7,400 inmates per month, according to its website, and is known for its outdoor desert jail, Tent City. The Department of Justice is currently investigating whether Maricopa Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his office committed civil rights abuses.

5. Texas
> Sentenced prisoners: 601 per 100,000 residents
> Total sentenced prisoners: 157,900 (the most)
> Violent crime rate: 408.5 per 100,000 (18th highest)
> Poverty rate: 18.5% (11th highest)

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Texas had more prisoners in its jurisdiction than any other state, with nearly 158,000 inmates as of 2012. However, the incarceration rate dropped 3.5%, compared to a decline of 1.7% across the country. Experts have attributed the decrease, at least in part, to policies that have moved some lower-level offenders into alternative sentencing programs. Like most states on this list, Texas had a disproportionate share of at-risk individuals. Nearly 19% of the state’s adult population did not have a high school diploma, tied with Mississippi for the highest rate in the country. The 2011 poverty rate of 18.5% was also higher than the 15.9% across the United States.

4. Oklahoma
> Sentenced prisoners: 648 per 100,000 residents
> Total sentenced prisoners: 24,830 (17th most)
> Violent crime rate: 454.8 per 100,000 (11th highest)
> Poverty rate: 17.2% (16th highest)

Oklahoma housed 648 inmates serving sentences per 100,000 residents in 2012, up from 632 in 2011. There were 127 female prisoners in 2012 for every 100,000 female residents, the highest incarceration rate in the country and up from 122 in 2011. The state has become increasingly dependent on private prisons, with about 23% of the prison population serving sentences in a private facility. The move toward private prisons can limit the motivation of the state to cut down on the prison population because the state typically pays much less to hire private companies than to fund the prisons directly. Oklahoma was in the top third of all states for both violent and property crime. Specifically, the state ranked among the top 10 in both aggravated assault and motor vehicle theft.

3. Alabama
> Sentenced prisoners: 650 per 100,000 residents
> Total sentenced prisoners: 31,437 (13th most)
> Violent crime rate: 420.1 per 100,000 (16th highest)
> Poverty rate: 19.0% (tied for 7th highest)

With 650 prisoners for every 100,000 residents, Alabama’s incarceration rate stayed exactly the same in 2012 as it was in 2011. Crime rates were higher in Alabama than most other states. The state had the fifth-highest property crime rate in 2011, with more than 3,600 crimes committed per 100,000 residents. Among property crimes, the state had the third-highest burglary rate. In addition, the violent crime rate was among the top third of all states. More than 17% of the state’s adult population lacked a high school diploma as of 2011, higher than all but four other states. Alabama also had one of the highest poverty rates in the nation, with 19% of people living below the poverty line.

2. Mississippi
> Sentenced prisoners: 717 per 100,000 residents
> Total sentenced prisoners: 21,426 (21st most)
> Violent crime rate: 269.8 per 100,000 (18th lowest)
> Poverty rate: 22.6% (the highest)

Even as the prison population declined across the country, it increased in Mississippi. Between 2011 and 2012 it grew 4.1%, a faster rate of growth than all but two other states. Although the $41.51 daily cost to house an inmate in the state is well below the national average of $65.41, the state’s corrections system is still $30 million in the hole for the 2013 fiscal year. Much of that is due to inmate growth. A hefty 22.6% of Mississippi’s population lived below the poverty line in 2011, the highest poverty rate in the country. Mississippi tied with Texas for the highest percentage in the country of adults who have not completed high school, at 18.9%.

1. Louisiana
> Sentenced prisoners: 893 per 100,000 residents
> Total sentenced prisoners: 41,246 (9th most)
> Violent crime rate: 555.3 per 100,000 (7th highest)
> Poverty rate: 20.4% (3rd highest)

No state had a higher incarceration rate than Louisiana, with 893 people behind bars for every 100,000 residents. The majority of Louisiana inmates were locked up in private facilities, which has given the state far less incentive to reduce the prison population than most other states. Louisiana had the seventh-highest violent crime rate in the country in 2011, with more than 555 crimes committed for every 100,000 residents. The state had the highest murder and non-negligent manslaughter rate, as well as the fifth-highest aggravated assault rate. However, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the state had a much lower percentage of inmates serving sentences for violent crime and a much higher percentage serving sentences for drug offenses than the nation as a whole.

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