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Study: Iowa's incarceration rate has jumped over the past 40 years

How much has the mass incarceration trend affected Iowa? More than you might think.

The independent public policy research group Vera Institute of Justice has assembled data from state and local correctional authorities and the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics in an effort to show how each state's incarceration rates have changed over time.

The effect of our society's continued interest in incarceration as a solution to crime can be hard to measure. For one thing, the population of Iowa, like many states, has grown over the last 40 to 50 years. A growth in the number of incarcerated people would be expected even if the rate of incarceration per capita did not rise.

Did the per capita incarceration rate really rise in Iowa, or was it just the effect of a growth in population? The per capita rate has grown substantially since about 1980, when lawmakers began introducing things like mandatory arrests, mandatory minimum sentences, stacked sentences and other policies that tend to increase incarceration.

First, let's look at the jail population. In 1977, about 34 people per 100,000 residents between the ages of 15 and 64 were jailed in Iowa. By 2015, that number was 182 per 100,000 such residents.

The numbers for people held in prisons are even more dramatic. Again, we're looking at the rate per 100,000 residents between the ages of 15 and 64. In 1977, the rate was 116 prisoners per resident. By 2015, Iowa was keeping 440 people in prison per resident.

Another trend worth noting is that the rate of people held in jail before trial has also skyrocketed. In 1977, an average of 17 people per 100,000 residents was being held in pre-trial detention. By 2015, we were holding about 158 people per 100,000 residents. These are people who have been charged but not convicted.

Is this increase due to a rise in crime?

No. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the overall crime rate reached its height in the late 80s and early 90s. It has been dropping steadily since then. All things being equal, we would expect the incarceration rate to drop in concert with the dropping crime rate. Instead, we've seen steady increases in both jail and prison rates since the late 1970s. And, far more people than ever are being held in pretrial detention.

In Iowa and across the U.S., we're locking up more people than ever -- but it's not making us safer.

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