U.S. Overall Prison Population Declines Slightly


The nation’s inmate count declined one percent last year, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics said today. The federal prison system accounted for about one-third of the decrease, amid a drive to reduce the sentence lengths for some drug offenders.

Overall, there were 1,561,500 prisoners at the end of 2014. With approximately 745,000 people also held in local jails as of midyear 2014, the national total behind bars is about 2.3 million—making the U.S. the world leader in incarceration.

Many states, as well as the federal government, have been trying to reduce their prisoner populations. The new data suggest that the process will be a slow one.

One figure in the report illustrates a major challenge: despite a longtime national crime decrease, the number of people admitted to state prisons increased from about 569,000 in 2013 to nearly 582,000 last year. Even if some sentences are shorter than before, that increase indicates it will be difficult to cut prison counts sharply in the coming years, which some advocates are seeking.

The federal inmate reduction was the most notable, with 5,300 fewer prisoners last year than the previous year. It was the second consecutive decline in federal facilities after many years of growth.

Mississippi had the largest percentage decrease last year, down 14 percent from 2013. Texas, Louisiana and New York all held at least 1,000 fewer prisoners last year than in 2013. Arizona had the largest increase, with 1,100 more inmates.

The number of female inmates increased by almost two percent last year but the 106,400 was only a small fraction of the male-dominated total.

Eighteen states and the federal government were operating at more than 100 percent of their maximum prison capacity last year. Seven states had 20 percent or more of their inmates in private facilities: New Mexico, Montana, Oklahoma, Hawaii, Mississippi, Vermont and North Dakota.

BJS said the total in private prisons had grown 90 percent, from 69,000 prisoners in 1999 to 131,300 in 2014. In 2014, almost seven percent of state inmates and 19 percent of federal prisoners were in private facilities.

Black men made up 37 percent of the prison population, far more than their percentage of the population generally. White men were 32 percent of the male prison population, followed by Hispanic men with 22 percent.

Among other findings in the newly published count, 10 percent of inmates were 55 or older. In 2013, according to the most recent data available for state prisons, 16 percent were serving terms for drug offenses, and 53 percent were violent offenders. In federal prisons, which house many white-collar criminals, seven percent were serving terms for violent offenses and 50 percent for drug offenses as of about a year ago.

Read the full report HERE.

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

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