S.E. Williams | Contributor

America is making progress in repairing its grossly disparate approach to criminal justice, yet many are convinced the wheels of change are turning far too slow.

The good news is since 2012 at least 39 of the nation’s 50 states have reduced their prison populations. But, at the current pace it will take approximately 72 years to cut America’s prison population by 50 percent.

Nazgol Ghandnoosh is Ph.D. Senior Research Analyst for The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C. based nonprofit research and advocacy group that works to reduce the nation’s use of incarceration while also addressing the racial disparities in the criminal justice system. As part of this effort his recent analysis determined that among the 39 states making progress in this area, five stood out.

Alaska, New Jersey, Vermont, Connecticut and New York led the nation in 2017 relative to progress regarding the reduction of their states’ prison populations. Each of these states reduced their prison populations by more than 30 percent from their peaks in 2012.

Surprisingly there are also Southern states making progress on this issue. Some of these states, known for their exceptionally high incarceration rates, have managed to attain double digit reductions in their prison populations. Included among them are Alabama which facilitated a 25 percent reduction; South Carolina’s prison population was reduced by 17 percent; Louisiana dropped by 16 percent; and Mississippi experienced a 15 percent decline.

At 25.3 percent, California experienced the seventh highest percent reduction since its peak in 2012.

As encouraging as this news is however, at least eleven states moved in the opposite direction and in 2017 experienced their highest prison populations in history. They include Arkansas (25 percent increase) and Washington State which increased its prison population by 13 percent. Other states where prison populations went up included Wyoming (14 percent), Kentucky (10 percent), New Mexico and South Dakota (9 percent each), Nevada (7 percent), Montana (4 percent), Kansas (3 percent) and Tennessee whose prison population increased by 2 percentage points.

In addition, 14 states in the nation demonstrated a less than five-percentage point reduction in their prison populations.

Even more disappointing is the state of Alaska—that had earned a place among the states leading the nation in prison population reduction—this year began eliminating many of its criminal justice reforms.

This data is further evidence that ending mass incarceration in our lifetime will take bold leadership and community involvement.

To learn more about how you can make a difference in helping to change one of the most devastating issues impacting the lives of Black people in America visit https://www.sentencingproject.org/actions/.

The full report, U.S. Prison Population Trends: Massive Buildup and Modest Decline, is available online here.

S.E. Williams

Stephanie E. Williams is an award winning investigative reporter, editor and activist who has contributed to several Inland Empire publications. Williams spent more than thirty years as a middle-manager...