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December 15, 2021

New BJS report documents big decrease in prison admissions drove 15% imprisonment rate decline in 2020

The Bureau of Justice Statistics has released its latest detailed accounting of US prison populations in this big report titled "Prisoners in 2020 – Statistical Tables."  The BJS data capture realities at yearend 2020, and thus reflects lots (but not all) COVID-era developments. Here is part of the start of the document, along with some of its "highlights":

In 2020, the number of persons held in state or federal prisons in the United States declined 15%, from 1,430,200 at yearend 2019 to 1,215,800 at yearend 2020. Only Alaska showed an increase (2%) in its prison population, while other jurisdictions showed declines of 7% to 31%.  The number of persons sentenced to more than 1 year in state or federal prison decreased from 1,379,800 in 2019 to 1,182,200 in 2020. Te combined state and federal imprisonment rate for 2020 (358 per 100,000 U.S. residents) represented a decrease of 15% from 2019 (419 per 100,000 U.S. residents) and a decrease of 28% from 2010 (500 per 100,000 U.S. residents).

The COVID-19 pandemic was largely responsible for the decline in prisoners under state and federal correctional authority.  Courts significantly altered operations for part or all of 2020, leading to delays in trials and/or sentencing of persons, and this was refected in the 40% decrease in admissions to state and federal prison from 2019.  While the number of releases also declined during 2020, releases occurred at a slower rate (10%) than the decrease in admissions. Although deaths represented 1% of the total releases from prison in 2020, the number prisoners that died under the jurisdiction of state or federal correctional authorities in 2020 (6,100 prisoners) increased 46% from 2019 (4,200).

From 2019 to 2020, the decline in the number of females sentenced to more than 1 year in prison (down 22%) outpaced the decrease in sentenced male prisoners (down 14%).  The imprisonment rates for U.S. residents in all racial or ethnic categories decreased by 12% to 16% from 2019 to 2020 and by at least 25% from 2010 to 2020.  The imprisonment rate for black U.S. residents decreased 37%, from 1,489 per 100,000 in 2010 to 938 per 100,000 in 2020.


  • At yearend 2020, the number of prisoners under state or federal jurisdiction had decreased by 214,300 (down 15%) from 2019 and by 399,700 (down 25%) from 2009, the year the number of prisoners in the United States peaked.
  • Nine states showed decreases in the number of persons in prison of at least 20% from 2019 to 2020.
  • The prison populations of California, Texas, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons each declined by more than 22,500 from 2019 to 2020, accounting for 33% of the total prison population decrease.
  • In 2020, the imprisonment rate was 358 per 100,000 U.S. residents, the lowest since 1992.
  • From 2010 to 2020, the sentenced imprisonment rate for U.S. residents fell 37% among blacks; 32% among Hispanics; 32% among Asians, Native Hawaiians, and Other Pacifc Islanders; 26% among whites; and 25% among American Indians and Alaska Natives.
  • The number of admissions to federal prison (down 19,000) and to state prison (down 211,800) both declined by 40% from 2019 to 2020.
  • Releases from federal and state prisons decreased during 2020 (down 58,400 or almost 10% from 2019), but at a lower rate than the decrease in admissions.

I find it fascinating and telling that our nation actually did not release more people from prison during an historic pandemic, but it did have a harder time continuing to send a massive number of new people to prison. I am thus tempted to joke that, like lots of other segments of our society, America's mass incarceration system has also had "supply chain" issues that has impacted its usual functioning. Whether these patterns have continued into 2021 and beyond as this pandemic lingers on will be worth watching closely.

December 15, 2021 at 10:46 AM | Permalink


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