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Perhaps you've seen the headlines over the last few years trumpeting the slow, but significant decline in U.S. prison populations.

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"State, Federal Prison Populations Decline Simultaneously for First Time in 36 Years," announced the Pew Charitable Trusts last September. "Federal Prison Population Declines for First Time in Decades," proclaimed NBC News in 2014. "The prison population in the United States dropped in 2012 for the third consecutive year," reported the New York Times in 2013.

The fact that there are fewer people living in prison is, of course, good news. But is it the whole story? Do these reported drops in prison populations paint a complete picture of the United States' complicated and controversial penal system?

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Not according to John Pfaff.

Pfaff is a professor of law at Fordham University. There, his research "focuses primarily on empirical matters related to criminal justice, especially criminal sentencing." He is, in other words, an expert when it comes to the ins and outs of our nation's prisons. And, as it happens, it is the "ins" and "outs"—specifically, the numbers of people actually going into and out of prison—that caught Professor Pfaff's attention on Tuesday morning.

John_Pfaff_on_Twitter___1__Last_night_working_thru_interesting_prison_puzzle__I_made_a_shocking_discovery__In_a_way__there_has_been_NO_PRISON_DECLINE__Bear_w_me…_

It comes down, explains Professor Pfaff over the course of 24 tweets, to a question of metrics. While we trumpet announcements about declining prison populations, we do so while glossing over the decidedly less-rosy stats on prison admittance.

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John_Pfaff_on_Twitter___2A__If_we_drop_CA__will_explain_why___since_2010_prison_populations_HAVE_dropped__by_1_9___Modest__but_something__https___t_co_SaiDlM3yjN__🔊
John_Pfaff_on_Twitter___2B__Still_dropping_CA__what_happens_to_prison_ADMITS_since_2010__They_rise__By_1_2___This_is_actually_striking__https___t_co_ULKTU4k7Jc_
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John_Pfaff_on_Twitter___3A__Implications_are_dramatic__while_we_have_reduced_the_number_of_ppl_in_prison_on_any_one_day__we_have_increased_the_number_of_PRISONERS__
John_Pfaff_on_Twitter___3B__We_may_be_cutting_budgetary_costs__but_likely_increasing_the_social_cost__Worse__we_can’t_see_it__We’re_looking_at_the_wrong_metric__
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Of course, things can vary, state-by-state.

John_Pfaff_on_Twitter___4A__Looking_just_the_26_states_w_declines_over_2010-14__“paradox”_goes_away__-4_2__for_prison_pop__-1_5__for_admits__Still—small_admit_drop__
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John_Pfaff_on_Twitter___4B__Still__some_notable_failures__That_Texas_miracle__Not_so_much__tho_some_noise_in_admit_data___Ditto_Georgia__https___t_co_8XCwx9z5HQ_

And things are still better than they used to be.

John_Pfaff_on_Twitter___4C__Now__to_be_fair__admits_are_down_from_2005_peak_by__100K__But_that_suggests_reform_period_ended__2010…__https___t_co_owICVaKRzX__🔊
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For those out there who have a hard time wrapping your brains around the difference being explored here, Professor Pfaff offers a simple example:

John_Pfaff_on_Twitter___5A__This_started_as_a_thought_experiment__A_state_admits_10_ppl_per_yr_for_2_years__soon_has_prison_pop_of_20__10_in_first_yr__10_in_last___
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John_Pfaff_on_Twitter___5B__Now_state_cuts_time_served_to_1_yr__but_prosecutors_send_15_to_prison_instead_of_10__Prison_pop_drops_to_15__but___entering_rises_to_15__
John_Pfaff_on_Twitter___5C__As_a_result__more_ppl_impacted_by_prison__every_2_yrs_30_pass_thru__not_20__but_only_15_in_at_a_time_—but_can’t_see_it_in_“prison_pop_”_
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In other words, while prison populations may be down, that doesn't necessarily mean there's been a decrease in the sheer number of people being affected by prison terms.

John_Pfaff_on_Twitter___6__Note_that_if_cut_time_served_from_2_yrs_to_1_yr_and_don’t_change_admits__pris_pop_falls_in_half—Cut50_—but_NO_change_in___admitted___🔊
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John_Pfaff_on_Twitter___7A__It’s_likely_prison_costs_accrue_quickly__job_loss__psych_harm__family_stress__etc__Bet_biggest_jump_in_costs_is_in_first_few_years__
John_Pfaff_on_Twitter___7B__Now__to_be_fair__2_3_of_admit_↑_from_↑_in_parole_admits__so_some_of_these_costs_already_incurred__Still__real_costs_to_parole_viols_too___🔊
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John_Pfaff_on_Twitter___8__The_goal_shouldn’t_be_to_cut_PRISON_pops__The_goal_should_be_to_cut_number_who_BECOME_PRISONERS__These_are_NOT_the_same_number__

The key, explains Professor Pfaff, isn't simply prison reform, but the right kind of prison reform.

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John_Pfaff_on_Twitter___9A__Reforms_that_target_backend_but_ignore_front-end_could_actually_free_up_DAs_to_impose_those_costs_on_MORE_ppl_at_LESS_political_cost__
John_Pfaff_on_Twitter___9B__Only_emphasizes_again_how_vitally_important_regulating_prosecutors_is__and_how_shocking_it_is_that_NO_ONE_is_doing_this__
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John_Pfaff_on_Twitter___9C__Raising_felony_cut-offs_for_things_like_drugs_and_property_offenses_is_a_start__But_need_to_think_SO_much_bigger__SO_much_bolder__

Ultimately, then, it comes down to really taking the time to examine the data, rather than accept a convenient narrative.

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John_Pfaff_on_Twitter___10__To_reiterate__for_all_the_hype_about_falling_prison_POPULATIONS__prison_ADMISSIONS_are_UP__MORE_ppl_went_to_prison_in_2014_than_in_2010__
John_Pfaff_on_Twitter___11A__It_feels_almost_silly_to_type_this__It’s_so_obvious__It_didn’t_take_a_regression__Just_compared_two_publicly_available_numbers__
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John_Pfaff_on_Twitter___11B__Yet_somehow_this_has_completely_fallen_thru_the_cracks_of_our_reform_discussion__MORE_ppl_harmed_by_prison__but_LESS_visibly_so__
John_Pfaff_on_Twitter___12__I_find_this_profoundly_disturbing__I_want_to_tweet_non-stop_on_this__But_I’ll_stop_here__With_one_last_thing__
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John_Pfaff_on_Twitter___13__However_worried_you_were_about_prison_reform__You_should_be_A_LOT_more_concerned__This_is_a_dire_warning_about_how_misdirected_it_is__

And just in case you thought he forgot

John_Pfaff_on_Twitter____Oh__why_no_CA__Large_pris_pop__peculiar-but-hard-tomeasure_drop_in_admits__driven_by_unique_political_situation__Throws_everything_off___

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