Alaska Prison Data: Some Comparisons

Alaska Prison Data: Some Comparisons

N.E. Schafer

Schafer, N.E. "Alaska Prison Data: Some Comparisons" Alaska Justice Forum 12(4): 3-4 (Winter 1996). According to June 1995 data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Alaska ranks 41st among the 50 states in the number of persons incarcerated, but ranks among the middle of all states for its rate of incarceration. This article compares Alaska with states of similar population in an effort to understand the disparity in its rankings. Racial disparities in Alaska's prison population may be a factor.

The Justice Center has extracted Alaska data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics report discussed in the accompanying article in order to compare the Alaska prison population with the populations of similar states.

According to the June 1995 data, Alaska ranks 41st among the 50 states in the number of persons incarcerated, but ranks in the middle of all states for the rate at which we incarcerate our people — 25th among all the states, a ranking much lower than Alaska achieved in the 1980s but still high in comparison with other small states. In an effort to understand the disparity in our rankings we have examined the Alaska data in different ways. Table 1 presents the ten smallest states — according to Bureau of the Census 1994 population estimates — with their 1995 prison populations, and Table 2 presents the BJS-computed rates of incarceration for the same states. (The figures in Table 1 include jail and prison populations; the rates in Table 2 are based on the number of prisoners sentenced to more than one year.)

One of the states closest to us in population (North Dakota) ranks 50th among states for both the number of prisoners held and for the rate at which its people are incarcerated. There are other, larger states which hold fewer prisoners than Alaska — Maine (pop. 1,240,000) with 1459 prisoners, West Virginia (pop. 1,822,000) with 2438 prisoners, and Nebraska (pop.1623,000) with 2801 prisoners.

Many states have lower incarceration rates. The ten states with the lowest BJS-calculated incarceration rates are: North Dakota, Minnesota, Maine, West Virginia, Vermont, Utah, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Five of these states are among the states with the lowest general populations, but the remainder are considerably larger.

Because Alaska has an integrated state-level jail and prison system, we also compared Alaska to those states which have integrated their jails and prisons; this adds two states for consideration — Connecticut and Hawaii. (Rhode Island, Delaware and Vermont are the other states with integrated systems.) Connecticut held 15,005 prisoners on June 30, 1995 for an incarceration rate of 325 per 100,000, a rate a bit higher than Alaska's; Hawaii held 3583 prisoners — a rate of 218 per 100,000, a substantially lower incarceration rate.

While most of the small states listed in Tables 1 and 2 are rural with very few large metropolitan areas, in Alaska more than half of the population is urban, thus perhaps contributing to its rather high incarceration rate. (Anchorage is Alaska's largest city, with a city population of 246,000 in 1992 and a regional population of 290,000). However, several states with much larger urban areas have much lower incarceration rates — including some of the ten lowest: Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, Utah.

Another possible difference between Alaska and states with lower incarceration rates is the proportion of the population that is minority. Data from the Alaska Department of Corrections regularly show that minorities are overrepresented in Alaska's correctional institutions; that is, minorities form a higher percentage of the prison population than they do for the population as a whole. We used Bureau of the Census estimates of race and ethnic data for 1992 to compute the proportion of the Alaska population which is minority (26.1%) and the minority proportions of the ten states with the lowest incarceration rates. None of these ten had a minority population which comprised more than 13 per cent of the general population. Massachusetts' minority population was 12.9 per cent of the total and Rhode Island's 11.0 per cent. New Hampshire, Vermont and West Virginia had minority populations which were less than 5 per cent of their totals. Thus, a higher level of heterogeneity may help to explain the higher rate of incarceration in Alaska. To check this we also computed approximate proportions for the states closest to Alaska in incarceration rate. Colorado's incarceration rate was 287 per 100,000 people, and its racial minority was 19.6 per cent of its total population; Tennessee, with an incarceration rate of 284 per 100,000 population, had a minority population of 17.7 per cent. However, Kentucky, with a higher incarceration rate (310 per 100,000) than Alaska, has a minority population of 8.4 per cent. Although the results of the comparisons are not consistent, problems related to race and culture and the extent to which the population is urbanized, may help to explain why Alaska's incarceration rate continues to be higher than those of states of similar size.

N.E. Schafer is a professor with the Justice Center.