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The United States is (Very) Slowly Reducing Incarceration

In 2015, the prison population fell by a little over 2 percent, with similar decreases in the jail, probation and parole populations. It marked the largest drop in the incarceration rate in over 45 years.

  • James Cullen
January 18, 2017

Since 2008, the United States has begun to slowly reduce its prison popu­la­tion.

Last month, the Bureau of Justice Stat­ist­ics released its yearly data on correc­tional popu­la­tions, and it had some relat­ively uplift­ing news. The decline in our prison popu­la­tion has contin­ued, and may even have accel­er­ated.

In 2015, the prison popu­la­tion fell by a little over 2 percent, with similar decreases in the jail, proba­tion and parole popu­la­tions. In fact, 2015 marked the largest drop in the incar­cer­a­tion rate in over 45 years.

This is real progress. The first graph shows that the impris­on­ment rate has fallen to its lowest point in 15 years.

But the second graph, below, shows that we still have a long way to go. These recent gains bring the impris­on­ment rate down to around 2000 levels (now at 458 per 100,000 people), but that’s still more than 3 times as high as it was in 1980 (138 per 100,000). The recent decline is a step in the right direc­tion, but not substan­tial enough to truly end mass incar­cer­a­tion. 

The prison popu­la­tion remains far out of line with both history and other wealthy demo­cra­cies. The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s popu­la­tion but nearly 25 percent of its pris­on­ers. Other coun­tries — and many indi­vidual states — have found ways to lower crime rates while spend­ing much less on their crim­inal justice systems and impris­on­ing far fewer people.

But even with the recent drops, 1 in every 37 adults remains under some form of correc­tional super­vi­sion at any given point. The aver­age Amer­ican Face­book user should expect about 10 of their friends to be in prison, jail, parole or proba­tion at any given time.

If that does not seem to align with your own Face­book account, that may be because the prob­lem of mass incar­cer­a­tion isn’t exper­i­enced evenly. African Amer­ican impris­on­ment rates remain almost six times as high as white impris­on­ment rates, and general involve­ment with the system is marked by even greater dispar­it­ies.

So, there is much work left to be done. While the incar­cer­a­tion rate fell by just under 3 percent last year, continu­ing this trend will be excep­tion­ally diffi­cult. And even at this pace, the United States would not reach the level of incar­cer­a­tion it had in 1985 until 2040. However, if the coun­try can stay the course, mass incar­cer­a­tion can be undone, however slowly. A possible path forward? Offi­cials could take the recom­mend­a­tions of a recent Bren­nan Center report, which finds that 39 percent of the prison popu­la­tion is unne­ces­sar­ily incar­cer­ated. Recom­mend­a­tions include refrain­ing from using impris­on­ment for lower-level crimes, and ensur­ing prison sentences for seri­ous and viol­ent crimes are propor­tional to the crimes commit­ted.

The United States just had the largest drop in the incar­cer­a­tion rate in decades. But to bring our numbers in line with compar­able demo­cra­cies (and back to where they were before the surge in the late 1980s and 1990s), we will need to repeat it 25 years in a row.