It is happening slowly, but the prison population in the US is steadily declining.
According to a new report released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the prison population in the US has declined for the third year in a row. The report shows that there was a 1.7% decline between the end of 2011 and the end of 2012. The number of incarcerated persons dropped from 1,598,783 to 1,571,013 which means that there were 27,770 fewer people imprisoned at the end of 2012 than 2011. However, the imprisonment rate for men is still more than 14 times the rate for women.
The Washington Post explains:
As the report details, about 70 percent of the state-level drop was due to California. Back in 2011, the state legislature passed new laws to shrink the prison population in response to a court order. As a result, California slowed down the rate of admissions and had 15,000 fewer prisoners by the end of the year. (Here’s an analysis from the ACLU on the ups and downs of California’s policy—many would-be prisoners are now being placed instead in county jails or shifted to post-release programs.)
But it wasn’t just California. Twenty-five other states also saw their prison populations drop slightly, with New Jersey, New York, Florida, and Texas each shedding at least 1,000 state prisoners. In general, states appear to be locking up fewer drug offenders and focusing more heavily on violent offenders, the report said.
According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, the US has the “highest percentage of prisoners in the world, at 716 prisoners per 100,000 people,” due to the fact that there has been an “explosion in incarceration” since the late 1970s. In fact, according to the BJS, the US prison population has grown consistently every year from 1978-2009, rising from 307,276 to a high of 1,615,487.
Natasha Frost, associate dean of Northeastern University’s school of criminology and criminal justice said, “This is the beginning of the end of mass incarceration.” But is that really the case? Although State prison populations have been in a decline, the federal prisons actually increased their number of inmates by 6,409 in 2011, which was an increase of 3.4%. According to the Post, this increase was driven by “yet another steep rise in drug sentencing — drug offenders now make up nearly half of the 198,000 federal inmates … And as a recent report from the Urban Institute explained, federal prisons will keep ballooning unless Congress changes its sentencing guidelines.”
According to the New York Times:
Experts on prison policy said that the continuing decline appears to be more than a random fluctuation.
“A year or even two years is a blip and we shouldn’t jump to conclusions, but three years starts to look like a trend,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit research group based in Washington. But he said that the rate of inmates incarcerated in the United States continued to be “dramatically higher” than in other countries and that the changes so far were “relatively modest compared to the scale of the problem.”
But a reduction in numbers is still a reduction, and after three consecutive years it looks as though it may be becoming a trend. And while the initial reason behind the reduction may have been due to fiscal need, Joan Petersilia, a law professor at Stanford and a co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, believes that Americans have “gotten the message that locking up a lot of people doesn’t necessarily bring public safety.” She also added that, “though the trend may have begun out of a need for belt-tightening, it had grown into a national effort to rethink who should go to prison and for how long.”
Adam Gelb, the director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project, agrees with Petersilia. He said:
They’re not simply pinching pennies. Policy makers are not holding their noses and saying we have to scale back prisons to save money. The states that are showing drops are states that are thinking about how they can apply research-based alternatives that work better and cost less.
Changes in state and federal sentencing laws for lower-level offenses like those involving drugs have played a central role in the shift … with many states setting up diversion programs for offenders as an alternative to prison. And some states have softened their policies on parole, no longer automatically sending people back to prison for parole violations.
But changing public attitudes are also a major driver behind the declining prison numbers. Dropping crime rates over the last 20 years have reduced public fears and diminished the interest of politicians in running tough-on-crime campaigns. And public polls consistently show that Americans are now more interested in spending money on education and health care than on building more prisons.
The BJS shows that Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration in the US, followed by Mississippi, Alabama, Oklahoma and Texas. Maine has the lowest rate, followed by Minnesota and Rhode Island.
Whites, who make up 78 percent of the U.S. population, account for 35% of the state prison population. Blacks, who make up 13% of the U.S. population, account for 38% of the state prison population. Hispanics, who make up 17% of the U.S. population, make up 21% of the state prison population.