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September 17, 2019

"U.S. Prison Population Trends: Massive Buildup and Modest Decline"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new briefing paper authored by Nazgol Ghandnoosh who is a Senior Research Analyst at The Sentencing Project. The short paper is full of great charts and data, and here is the start of the text:

By yearend 2017, 1.4 million people were imprisoned in the United States, a decline of 7% since the prison population reached its peak level in 2009.  This follows a nearly 700% growth in the prison population between 1972 and 2009.

The overall pace of decarceration has varied considerably across states, but has been modest overall. Thirty-nine states and the federal government had downsized their prisons by 2017.  Five states — Alaska, New Jersey, Vermont, Connecticut, and New York — reduced their prison populations by over 30% since reaching their peak levels.  But among the 39 states that reduced levels of imprisonment, 14 states downsized their prisons by less than 5%. Eleven states, led by Arkansas, had their highest ever prison populations in 2017.

If states and the federal government maintain this pace of decarceration, it will take 72 years — until 2091 — to cut the U.S. prison population in half.

The United States has made only modest progress in ending mass incarceration despite a dramatic decline in crime rates.  Reported crime rates have plummeted to half of their 1990s levels — as they have in many other countries that did not increase imprisonment levels.  Expediting the end of mass incarceration will require accelerating the end of the Drug War and scaling back sentences for all crimes, including violent offenses for which half of people in prison are serving time.

September 17, 2019 at 04:54 PM | Permalink


It's far more accurate to discuss the situation in terms of incarceration rates, rather than the raw numbers as the briefing paper does. If you examine rates, the picture, while hardly rosy, is far less gloomy. The imprisonment rate is down 13 percent between 2007 and 2017, according to BJS statistics, and has almost certainly declined since then. It will not take 72 years to cut the incarceration rate in half.

Posted by: Charles Lane | Sep 17, 2019 5:13:06 PM

Excellent point, Charles.

Posted by: Doug B. | Sep 18, 2019 9:04:41 AM

The most important factors that determine state prison population trends are the admission rate, release rate and average length of confinement. If you use incarceration rate you have to include the growth rate of the population of the state and deal with the complication of non resident prison inmates. Since the desired outcome is smaller prison population I don't see any advantage to using the incarceration rate.

In many states there is no central control over prison admissions and empty prison beds are promptly refilled. Reducing the average length of confinement tends to increase the release rate but increasing the release rate is just moving the problem to the jails or community supervision.

John Pfaff is right you have to deal with the problem at the source and there are about 400 major sources of prison admissions.

Posted by: John Neff | Sep 18, 2019 11:30:02 AM

You can get more insight about prison condition on this website https://sentencing.net

Posted by: roel | Oct 7, 2019 5:08:44 AM

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