September 2, 2016


This small Indiana county sends more people to prison than San Francisco and Durham, N.C., combined. (JOSH KELLER and ADAM PEARCE, SEPTEMBER 2, 2016, NY Times)

Dearborn County represents the new boom in American prisons: mostly white, rural and politically conservative.

A bipartisan campaign to reduce mass incarceration has led to enormous declines in new inmates from big cities, cutting America's prison population for the first time since the 1970s. From 2006 to 2014, annual prison admissions dropped 36 percent in Indianapolis; 37 percent in Brooklyn; 69 percent in Los Angeles County; and 93 percent in San Francisco.

But large parts of rural and suburban America -- overwhelmed by the heroin epidemic and concerned about the safety of diverting people from prison -- have gone the opposite direction. Prison admissions in counties with fewer than 100,000 people have risen even as crime has fallen, according to a New York Times analysis, which offers a newly detailed look at the geography of American incarceration.

Just a decade ago, people in rural, suburban and urban areas were all about equally likely to go to prison. But now people in small counties are about 50 percent more likely to go to prison than people in populous counties.

The stark disparities in how counties punish crime show the limits of recent state and federal changes to reduce the number of inmates. Far from Washington and state capitals, county prosecutors and judges continue to wield great power over who goes to prison and for how long. And many of them have no interest in reducing the prison population.

"I am proud of the fact that we send more people to jail than other counties," Aaron Negangard, the elected prosecutor in Dearborn County, said last year. "That's how we keep it safe here."

He added in an interview: "My constituents are the people who decide whether I keep doing my job. The governor can't make me. The legislature can't make me." [...]

Those choices have started to reverse -- if only modestly -- longstanding racial disparities in American prisons, where blacks and Hispanics are incarcerated at drastically higher rates than whites. The annual number of new black prison inmates fell by about 25 percent from 2006 to 2013, and the number of Hispanic inmates fell by about 30 percent, while the number of new white inmates fell by only about 8 percent, according to the most complete federal data.

The number of black prisoners is still "shockingly high," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. "Nonetheless, these numbers are encouraging. It suggests that this is not necessarily an intractable problem."

But rural, mostly white and politically conservative counties have continued to send more drug offenders to prison, reflecting the changing geography of addiction. While crack cocaine addiction was centered in cities, opioid and meth addiction are ravaging small communities like those in Dearborn County, where 97 percent of the population is white.

Posted by at September 2, 2016 3:04 PM