Prison Populations Down For Third Straight Year


Texas State Prison. Photo by Ephien via Flickr

The U.S. prison population dropped last year by 27,770 inmates, or 1.7 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics said today. A preliminary count found 1,571,013 federal and state prisoners. The total still exceeds 2 million if local jails and state juvenile facilities are included.

BJS said prison populations fell in nine states: California, Texas, North Carolina, Colorado, Arkansas, New York, Florida, Virginia, and Maryland. Inmate counts increased in other states, including Louisiana, Mississippi, Michigan, and Kentucky. Data from three states–Illinois, Nevada, and Washington–were estimated because the states didn’t supply data. A final total will be announced later.

It was the third consecutive year of a prisoner decline, reflecting a drop in crime and a change in state correctional policies. Many states have been relying more on various probation and parole practices instead of prison terms. The U.S. prison population increased every year between 1978 and 2009, from 307,276 in 1978 to a high of 1,615,487 in 2009.

A little over half of the total national decline occurred because of a California “realignment” in 2011 in response to court decisions ordering the state to reduce the prison population over a failure to provide adequate health care.

The state had 15,035 fewer inmates in 2012 than 2011, accounting for 51 percent of the national decrease. The 2011 policy sent “nonserious, nonsex, nonviolent offenders” to local jails instead of state prisons.

The federal prison population grew by 1,453 inmates last year, 0.7 percent, a slower rate than the average annual increase of 3.2 percent each year over the past decade. U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who heads the subcommittee that funds the Justice Department, has proposed a $1 million study of ways to control federal prisoner numbers better.

The reduction in national prisoner numbers will help provoke more debate on the success of programs like “justice reinvestment,” which help states study the factors contributing to high prison populations and devise cost-effective ways of reducing them without endangering public safety.

Advocates say justice reinvestment has helped halt the consistent rise in incarceration. Critics say the movement has not gone far enough, noting that the inmate numbers have dropped very slowly despite a sharp decrease in the crime rate.

Expressed in terms of a rate, BJS found that there were 480 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents last year, continuing a decline since 2007. The imprisonment rate for men (910 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 male residents) was more than 14 times the imprisonment rate for women (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.

Louisiana had the highest imprisonment rate last year, 893 per 100,000 state residents. That was followed by 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 (145 per 100,000 state residents), followed by Minnesota (184 per 100,000 state residents), and Rhode Island (190 per 100,000 state residents).

Using data from 2011, BJS said 53 percent of 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, and11 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 21 percent.

BJS launched a new online tool that provides instant access to national and state-level prisoner data from 1978 to 2011. The tool allows for analysis of prisoner data by yearend populations, admissions, and releases and many characteristics of prisoners.

Ted Gest is the Washington D.C. Bureau Chief of The Crime Report and President of Criminal Justice Journalists. He welcomes comments from readers.

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