Connecticut passed a significant criminal justice milestone this week: The total number of persons incarcerated, in both prison and jails, has dropped by 50% compared to the all-time peak of 19,894 on February 1, 2008.
Aside from the extraordinary nature of this ongoing downward trend (New York and New Jersey are the only other states that have experienced a similar reduction) there are other signs that point toward more encouraging developments in the months to come. For starters, the number of women incarcerated at York Correctional Institution, our state’s only facility for females, has been cut in half over only the last four years and is currently at only one-third of its all-time high in 2003.
More significantly, the number of incarcerated young adults ages 18-24 is 70% lower than it was ten years ago. (3,903 on July 1, 2010; 1,120 on July 1 of this year.)] The fact that fewer and fewer young adults are entering our prisons and jails each month is the best possible indicator that our incarcerated population will continue to decline for the foreseeable future.
It is important to acknowledge the unprecedented effect that COVID-19 has had on these trends. Although the general downward trend had been well-established over the past decade, the last four months have seen a dramatic decline in the number of newly arrested or sentenced people being admitted to correctional facilities. Since March 1, the overall incarcerated population has dropped by almost 2,500, fully 25% of the decline over the last dozen years. There is little reason to believe that this will slow much during the remainder of 2020 since it seems likely that there will be at least six more months before any semblance of normalcy returns to our criminal courts.
The fact that fewer and fewer young adults are entering our prisons and jails each month is the best possible indicator that our incarcerated population will continue to decline for the foreseeable future.
These trends can best be appreciated in broader context. As is well known today, the United States is the world leader in rates of incarceration per capita. In 2010 our nation incarcerated 730 people per 100,000 population, by far the highest rate in the world. That same year Connecticut’s rate was 524. Today, our state’s rate is 284.
You might ask: How does that compare to industrialized democracies world wide? Most countries that we would like to be associated with have rates of incarceration between 100 and 200 per 100,000 population. This is true in Australia, Canada, Japan and most of Europe. Germany and several other northern European nations have a rate closer to 70. If Connecticut’s total incarceration population drops to 7,000, we would find ourselves at the high end of the international norm: 200 incarcerated per 100,000 population. My educated guess is that we will be very close to that milestone within the next two years.
These trends directly relate to dropping levels of reported crime in our state, especially crime involving victims. Fewer crimes means fewer arrests; means fewer convictions; means fewer admissions to prison. Since 2010 crimes reported to the police in Connecticut, including violent crimes, have dropped 31%. New criminal cases added to court dockets statewide each year have dropped 38% over that same time. Arrests of young adults are down 52% since 2009. All of these statistics are pre-pandemic.
Keep in mind that only one-third of states have experienced a drop in violent crime over the last six years. Connecticut, together with New Jersey, has experienced the biggest decline. Also, although the general national trend is a dropping rate of incarceration, there are a handful of states with increasing corrections populations. The resulting overcrowding crisis has created a serious budget and policy dilemma for governors and legislators. Kentucky, Nebraska and Oklahoma stand out in this regard.
In the months to come, Connecticut, like many states and the federal government, is likely to consider significant criminal justice reforms. As our policymakers consider the options, we can take some comfort in our demonstrated success to date and continue to build on a very solid public safety foundation.
Mike Lawlor is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of New Haven and was Under Secretary for Criminal Justice for former Gov. Dannel Malloy.