Criminal Justice

U.S. Incarceration Rate Fell Last Year to Lowest Level Since 1994

Total prison population, imprisonment rates, and racial disparities in incarceration all continued their slide.

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The U.S incarceration rate fell last year to its lowest level since 1994, continuing a more than decade-long decline in imprisonment, according to a study published Thursday by the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).

There were 33,000 fewer people incarcerated in state and federal prisons in 2019—down from 1.46 million at the end of 2018 to 1.43 million. The overall incarceration rate fell to 419 per 100,000 U.S. residents. That's a 3 percent drop from 2018 and 17 percent down from its 2008 peak.

The total U.S. prison population hit an all-time high in 2009 at a staggering 2.3 million people. Since then, it has fallen by 11 percent as states passed a wave of bipartisan criminal justice reforms in response to exploding budgets, crumbling prison infrastructure, and an increasingly loud outcry over the human costs of mass incarceration.

The vast majority of inmates in the country are held in state prisons and county jails, rather than the federal prison system. The BJS report does not include jail inmates, who are typically awaiting trial or serving sentences shorter than a year. The Prison Policy Initiative estimated that the total prison and jail population as of March this year was 2.3 million.

The prison population is expected to continue to fall this year due to the release of a significant number of inmates in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates that number could be upwards of 48,000.

Racial disparities in incarceration continued to decrease as well. According to the BJS, from 2009 to 2019 the imprisonment rate fell 29 percent among black residents, 24 percent among Hispanic residents, and 12 percent among white residents.

But there are still problems to be addressed. As the ACLU notes, the prison population is getting older, racial disparities—though dropping—still exist, and drug offenses continue to drive incarceration, contributing to 14 percent of the total prison population and 46 percent of the federal prison population.

"This data is quantifiable evidence of what we're seeing around the country: The fight to end mass incarceration is making progress, but is far from over," Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU's justice division, said in a press release. "Too many people are still needlessly incarcerated and at risk, especially during this pandemic. This is not a moment to pause, but to push harder. We are moving in the right direction, but must do more and be even bolder."

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      1. This would ruin a column if she actually cared about facts.

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      2. This would ruin a column if she actually cared about facts.

  3. Well….compare the records of POTUS Trump and Quid Pro Quo Joe.

    Quid Pro Joe shepareded legislation that incarcerated a record number of young black and brown men.

    POTUS Trump got First Step passed into law, and incarceration rates are at lows.

    Pretty easy choice.

    PS Joe Biden is corrupt AF

    1. Eh. The peak was 2008, guess who was President when it started decreasing after the peak?

      1. Obama and Trump?
        The sharpest decline to in the study’s curve starts in 2016.
        https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p19.pdf

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  4. Well if you’ve got the space put some “peaceful” protestors and far left wingers in there. Might as well use it.

    1. Jail exposes them to SARS-CoV2 though. Better to let them congregate en masse in the street, shouting.

    2. I think those “peaceful” protesters are white and helping to reduce the racial disparity.

  5. Racial disparities in incarceration continued to decrease as well. According to the BJS, from 2009 to 2019 the imprisonment rate fell 29 percent among black residents, 24 percent among Hispanic residents, and 12 percent among white residents.

    Sounds to me like racial disparities are increasing if far fewer whites than blacks are avoiding prison. Is this “racial disparity” thing like the racial disparity that exists in the NBA or the racial disparity that exists in the KKK? One of these is no evidence of racism, the other is.

    1. Sentence lengths will affect things too.

    2. Missing from the discussion on identity disparities:
      “The sex disparity in incarceration remains staggering. Males 1,322,850 Females 107,955.”

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  8. So is this trying to say we are becoming the land of the free?

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  10. So, considering a reduction of 4,782 prisoners at the federal level, that works out to 564 fewer prisoners per each of the 50 states. Not incredibly heartening when you realize states like Texas, California and Florida have prison systems that closely rival the federal system in population! Still, I guess any improvement is better than no improvement when you’re the self-professed ‘Land of the Free’ but have more people locked up than Communist China.

    I do wonder, are the ‘right’ (non-violent or truly rehabilitated) people being released? Prison is a horrible place and many small-time offenders come out as better criminals (‘finishing school’ effect) or severely brutalized and psychologically damaged. We spend plenty on punishment, but how much goes toward helping these folks become productive citizens? In the case of violent crimes, many are impulsive or situational in nature (i.e., not serially-offending psychopaths). Considering our 2nd Amendment, I’m surprised that more violent criminals don’t even make it to a cell, in the first place.

    I also understand why they left county and city jail populations out of the study, but considering that many people spend more than one year in jail on both misdemeanor and felony charges (e.g., couldn’t make bail and awaiting trial, or waiting post-sentencing for a prison slot to open, or never making the ‘big time’ and caught in the ‘revolving door’ of repeat arrests for things like non-violent Prohibition violations.)

    That roughly 20% of prisoners at the state level (average of male and female most serious offense) and nearly 50% of prisoners are Prohibition violators at the federal level is still very troubling and indicative of the pervasive Drug Warrior mentality still infecting our justice and penal systems. When we see no reductions in overall drug use over decades and drugs are plentiful in our prisons, I’d say it’s well past time to rethink our approach!

    1. Yes, but people don’t vote about prison rates. They should, and they should look at all the data, and all this stuff affects all of us more than than the crazy stuff the political debates are about, but this topic, while hugely important is somewhat ignored. The Black Lives Matter movement used to focus on this, which is great, but I haven’t heard much about it lately. Trump had discussed sentencing reform, but he is too disorganized to get anything done. I doubt Biden and Harris will do anything to improve the situation.

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  15. So why didn’t this article even mention Trump’s prison reform measures that freed thousands of blacks who were incarcerated for many years thanks to Joe Biden’s aggressive measures to escalate the War on Drugs and sharply increase incarcerations when he was in the US Senate?

    1. Orange Man Bad.

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