U.S. Imprisonment Rate Down 11% Since 2008 Peak

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After peaking in 2008, the U.S. imprisonment rate fell 11 percent over eight years, reaching its lowest level since 1997, write Adam Gelb and Jacob Denney of the Pew Charitable Trusts Public Safety Performance Project. The decline from 2015 to 16 was 2 percent, mostly because of a drop in federal prisoners. The rate at which black adults are imprisoned declined 29 percent over the past decade. The ongoing decrease in imprisonment has occurred alongside long-term reductions in crime, the Pew writers say. Since 2008, the combined national violent and property crime rate dropped 23 percent.

On prisons, 36 states have reduced imprisonment rates since 2008, including declines of 15 percent or more in 20 states from diverse regions, such as Alaska, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Connecticut. Almost every state recorded a crime decrease with no apparent correlation to imprisonment. Across the 45 states with crime drops from 2008-16, imprisonment rate changes ranged from a 35 percent decrease to a 14 percent increase. The violent crime rate increased nationally in 2015 and 2016, but many cities are reporting reductions for 2017. Both violent and total crime rates remain near record lows. National, state, and local crime rates change for what Gelb and Denny call “complex and poorly understood reasons.” Overall, rates of reported violent and property crime have declined by more than half since 1991 peaks, falling to levels not seen since the late 1960s. Starting with Texas in 2007, more than 30 states have changed sentencing and corrections practices, aiming at improving public safety and controlling costs.

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