Civil Liberties

Most States Project Prison Populations to Keep Growing

The number of inmates in state prisons is set to rise 3 percent by 2018 and reverse a recent downward trend.



The number of inmates in state prisons is set to rise 3 percent by 2018, according to a new report from The Pew Charitable Trusts. The organization collected data from 34 states, containing about 70 percent of the current U.S. prison population. Most said they expect inmate increases, some quite substantially (Iowa, for instance, anticipates 16 percent growth by 2018). Only six states foresee their prison populations dropping.

"This snapshot suggests that, without policy reforms, the recent uptick in the number of state inmates reported by the Justice Department in 2014—the first increase in four years—could continue over the next four years," Pew cautions.

From the mid-1970s through 2008, state prisons grew steadily. Then 2009 saw the state prison population drop modestly for the first time in decades. But this trend reversed again in 2013, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

When measured against projected population growth by 2018, state imprisonment rates could remain steady or decline, even as the number of inmates continues to rise. States expecting the biggest inmate population increases include Iowa (up 16 percent), Wyoming (14 percent), Alaska (11 percent), Arizona (9 percent), Tennessee (9 percent), Utah (8 percent), Arkansas (7 percent), California (7 percent), and Nebraska (7 percent). "Projections in some states do not incorporate recent policy changes that may significantly affect future prison populations," such as California's passage of Proposition 47, Pew notes. 

The six states that project to actually lower the number of people imprisoned include: Hawaii (by less than 1 percent), Louisiana (by 3 percent), Massachusetts (2 percent), North Carolina (1 percent), Oregon (1 percent), and Pennsylvania (6 percent).

Most of these states have recently passed sentencing or prison reform legislation (Oregon in 2013; North Carolina in 2011; Pennsylvania in 2012Hawaii in 2014). Prior to passing its reforms, North Carolina was looking at a 10 percent increase in the state prison population by 2020.