Nation’s Prison Population Dropped 2 Percent in 2015

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Donaldson Prison, Bessemer Al. Photo by David Krajicek

Driven by a drop in the federal prison population, the national inmate total fell nearly 2 percent last year, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) said today.

A similar drop in the number on probation meant that some 6,741,400 people around the nation were supervised by adult correctional systems at year’s end in 2015. That included 2,248,000 in state prisons and jails, and 196,500 in federal prisons. In all, 1 in 37 U.S. adults were under correctional supervision, the lowest rate since the high-crime era of 1994.

While the smaller numbers will be welcomed by opponents of mass incarceration, some advocates say the pace of reductions is much too slow. This month, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University contended that nearly 40 percent of inmates are behind bars for no good public safety reason.

The number of inmates in states, which hold most of the national total, went down last year almost 2 percent, or 21,400. Prisoner numbers declined in 29 states.

Between 2010 and last year, the U.S. imprisonment rate fell 8.4 percent as the combined violent and property crime rate, as compiled by the FBI, declined 14.6 percent, said the Pew Charitable Trusts Public Safety Performance Project. Thirty-one states cut both rates simultaneously. Project director Adam Gelb said, “The numbers are showing that we can have less crime and less incarceration, and that fact is really starting to sink in with voters and elected officials across the political spectrum.”

BJS said that a 7 percent drop in the federal inmate count was responsible for 40 percent of the overall national decline.

The Obama administration and the U.S. Sentencing Commission have put a priority on releasing many drug offenders serving terms that critics contend are too harsh, but that policy could be reversed under the presidency of Donald Trump, who ran a “law and order” campaign.

Convicts under community supervision on probation (3,789,800) or parole (870,500) accounted for most of the overall correctional population in 2015. The probation count was down 2 percent, but the parole population increased 1.5 percent during the year.

Probation is a court-ordered period of correctional supervision in the community. Parole is a period of supervised community release after a prison term.

The number of prisoners in the U.S. steadily increased for the last several decades, through 2008. The total began to drop in 2009. Last year’s 51,300 drop in the total was the largest in a single year since the decline began.

The story of the incarceration decline is largely told in the admission and release numbers. State and federal prisons admitted 608,300 persons last year, 17,800 fewer than in 2014. They released 641,000, 4,700 more than in 2014.

Because the national data were released almost one year after the date they were compiled, it is difficult to say if the same trends continued in 2016.

In local jails, which hold mostly pretrial inmates or those serving short terms, there were about 721,300 inmates confined on an average day in 2015, down from a peak of 776,600 in 2008.

The jail numbers are averages, reflecting a huge turnover as many people are behind bars for only a few days at a time. There were 10.9 million admissions to jails last year, a figure that has steadily declined since 2008. The number of admissions to jails was nearly 15 times the size of last year’s average daily population.

The six states with the largest declines in prison inmate totals were California (6,500), Texas (2,100), Indiana (1,900), Louisiana (1,700), Florida (1,400), and New Jersey (1,100).

Among the state prison populations that grew last year, the highest numbers were Oklahoma (900) and Virginia (860).

Women comprised 7 percent of the prison population last year, down by 1,500 after increasing nearly 4 percent in the previous three years.

Of more than 1.3 million sentenced state and federal prisoners who were classified by race, roughly 523,000 were black, 500,000 white, and 319,000 Hispanic.

About 53 percent of state prisoners were serving time for violent offenses as of the end of 2014, the last year for which data were available. Only 3.5 percent were in prison for drug possession.

Last year, 8 percent of the inmate total were in privately operated facilities that were under the jurisdiction of 29 states and the federal government. The number of prisoners held in private facilities in 2015 (126,300) decreased 4 percent from 2014. The Obama administration said it would phase out contracts with private prisons, but the Trump Justice Department may continue them.

BJS noted that some of the comparative data were not precise because of issues in several states. For example, Kentucky appeared to show an increase of about 1,000 inmates from 2014 to 2015, but a footnote said the data could not be compared properly “due to a misinterpretation of the counting rules in 2014.”

The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy reported in June that “Kentucky’s inmate population has been rising rapidly, far above the state’s projections.” The center gave the number at that point as 23,701, well above the 21,701 listed in the BJS report as of last December.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments welcome.



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