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July 26, 2013

New BJS data show continued 2012 decline in state prison populations (and continued federal increase)

As detailed in this official press release from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which carries the heading "U.S. Prison Population Declined for Third Consecutive Year During 2012," the impact of tight budgets and state reforms continues to impact national prison populations in important and significant ways. Here are the basic details:

The U.S. prison population declined 1.7 percent (or by 27,770 inmates) from 2011 to 2012, falling to an estimated 1,571,013 prisoners.... Nine states had a decrease of over 1,000 prisoners in 2012: California, Texas, North Carolina, Colorado, Arkansas, New York, Florida, Virginia and Maryland.

This is the third consecutive year of a decline in the number of state prisoners, which represents a shift in the direction of incarceration practice in the states over the past 30 years. The prison population grew every year between 1978 and 2009, from 307,276 prisoners in 1978 to a high of 1,615,487 prisoners in 2009....

California accounted for the majority (51 percent) of the decline in state prisoners with 15,035 fewer inmates in 2012 than 2011. The decline in California was due in part to its Public Safety Realignment policy, which was designed to reduce overcrowding in the state prisons by diverting new admissions of “nonserious, nonsex, nonviolent offenders” from state prisons to local jails.

The decline in the state prison population was offset by an increase in the number of federal inmates. The federal prison population grew by 0.7 percent (or 1,453 inmates) during 2012, a slower rate than the average annual increase of 3.2 percent each year over the past 10 years.

The U.S. imprisonment rate dropped to 480 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 residents in 2012, continuing a decline since 2007. The national imprisonment rate for males (910 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 male U.S. residents) was over 14 times the imprisonment rate for females (63 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 female U.S. residents). The female imprisonment rate decreased 2.9 percent in 2012 from 65 per 100,000 female U.S. residents in 2011.

In 2012, states with the highest imprisonment rates included Louisiana (893 per 100,000 state residents), Mississippi (717 per 100,000 state residents), Alabama (650 per 100,000 state residents), Oklahoma (648 per 100,000 state residents), and Texas (601 per 100,000 state residents).

Maine had the lowest imprisonment rate among states (145 per 100,000 state residents), followed by Minnesota (184 per 100,000 state residents), and Rhode Island (190 per 100,000 state residents).

In 2011 (the most recent data available), the majority (53 percent) of sentenced state prisoners were serving time for a violent offense, including robbery (14 percent), murder or nonnegligent manslaughter (12 percent), rape or sexual assault (12 percent) and aggravated or simple assault (10 percent). About 18 percent were serving time for property offenses, 17 percent for drug crimes and 11 percent for public order offenses, such as weapon violations, drunk driving, commercialized vice and court offenses.

White prisoners comprised 35 percent of the 2011 state prison population, while black prisoners were 38 percent and Hispanics were 21 percent. The percentage of Hispanic inmates sentenced for violent offenses (58 percent) during 2011 exceeded that of non-Hispanic black (56 percent) and non-Hispanic white (49 percent) inmates, while the number of black inmates imprisoned for violent crimes (284,631) surpassed that of white (228,782) or Hispanic (162,489) inmates.

The number of white inmates sentenced for property crime (108,560) was larger than the number of black (78,197) and Hispanic (38,264) inmates sentenced for property crime, while more black inmates were sentenced for drug offenses than inmates of other races or Hispanic origin.

All of this data, and lots more of note, can be found via this 17-page BJS report, which carries the thrilling title "Prisoners in 2012 - Advance Counts."  Effective media coverage of this notable new prisoner data can be found via this New York Times article headlined "U.S. Prison Populations Decline, Reflecting New Approach to Crime."

July 26, 2013 at 10:58 AM | Permalink


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There were two striking numbers in this story. First, a majority of the reduction in state inmates came from a single state: California. The reductions there, however, did not, contrary to the suggestion in the NYT headline, stem from a "new approach to crime." They stemmed from Plata and realignment, period. And without California, the reduction in the number of prisoners is negligible, hardly one that bespeaks a "trend."

Second, only 17%, or roughly one-sixth, of state prisoners are in for drug offenses. Obviously, only a fraction of that are in for pot (there's still meth, heroin, PCP, crack and a whole bunch more out there), and only a fraction of THAT are in for possession (as opposed to trafficking, usually in large amounts).

Bottom line: The statement -- seen repeatedly in the pro-drug movement -- that prisons in this country are bulging with otherwise harmless, "first time, low-level" pot smokers is a complete fabrication.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 26, 2013 1:30:44 PM

Most drug offenders that had any qty level and/or history got sent up the Federal way. Where sentences are much longer...

So, the states are acquirying more true crime related defendents and federal is about at least 60% drug related, rest being, ACCA, gun bumps, immigration and kiddy porn, about sums it up...

Posted by: MidWest Guy | Jul 26, 2013 2:00:58 PM

Actually, the BOP's inmate breakdown (http://www.bop.gov/news/quick.jsp#4) shows 47.3% for drug offenses (a total of approximately 90,000 inmates which when added to the state counts would bring the total number of inmates on drug charges up to 315,000 out of 1,539,000 inmates or about 21% of the total incarcerated population.

The rest of the federal numbers shows 16.3% for weapons and arson related offenses, 11.7% for immigration offenses, 6.1% for sex offenses and 0.8% for miscelaneous offenses (since not sure if child porn is considered a sex offense or a miscelaneous offense.

As far as federal sentences being way longer, 57.5% of federal inmates are in on sentences of less than 10 years with another 20% doing sentences of 10-15 years.

Posted by: tmm | Jul 26, 2013 2:47:37 PM

tmm --

Federal criminal jurisdiction is very different from the states. The huge majority of federal crimes are drugs, immigration, firearms and fraud. On the state side, what you see is murder, rape, robbery, burglary, larceny, auto theft, assault and battery, DUI, etc.

Also, I would be interested if your looking into the figures shows what percent of the drug inmates, either state or federal, are there for (1) pot vs. other drugs, and (2) trafficking vs. simple possession.

Until I have different information, I'm unreservedly sticking with my statement that the claim that our prisons are bulging with "first time, low-level" pot smokers is a complete fabrication.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 26, 2013 3:42:29 PM

It says the overall prison population has declined since 2007. Crime has dropped every year since 2007, too, no? Maybe Steve Levitt is right and that we can have the same amount of crime control we had 10 years ago but with fewer prisoners.

Posted by: Thinkaboutit | Jul 26, 2013 7:08:23 PM

sorry Bill, when I did the above post, I just did a quick look at BOP numbers which did not include any breakdown beyond the broadest categories. I don't know what AUSA's did out in your part of the country, but, in my part of the country, the AUSA's only take referrals from state prosecutors if the drug quantity is very high.

Posted by: tmm | Jul 29, 2013 10:05:05 AM

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