What U.S. Prison Population Looked Like In the 50s

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Commenting on our story yesterday on a charge by Karol Mason, new president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is moving the clock back on criminal justice issues to the 1950s, Ohio State University law Prof. Douglas Berman in his Sentencing Law and Policy blog says the remark “provided an appropriate moment to remind everyone how much less the U.S. relied on imprisonment in the 1950s and even the 1980s.”

Berman notes that in 1955 the national prison population was just over 185,000, with about 20,000 in federal prison and the other 165,000 in state prisons. In 1985, the total figure was just over 465,000. At the end of 2015, says the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the national prison population was just over 1,525,000, with nearly 200,000 in federal prison and the other 1,325,000 in state prisons. Says Berman: “Justice Department policies and practices along with changes in state policies and practices in the 1980s played a significant role in the increase in prison populations, and that is the foundation for the considerable hand-wringing about a return to 1980s-era criminal justice thinking.”

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