The overall impact of sentencing reforms on the U.S. prison population has been quite modest, says The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group for prison alternatives. With 1.5 million people in prison in 2016, the prison population remains larger than the total population of 11 states. Although the number of prisoners has declined in recent years, if states and the federal government maintain their recent pace of decarceration, it will take 75 years—until 2093—to cut the U.S. prison population by 50 percent, says a new policy brief from the organization. It says that “expediting the end of mass incarceration will require accelerating the end of the drug war and scaling back sentences for serious crimes.”
The U.S. prison population grew by more than 600 percent between 1973 and 2009, from 200,000 to 1.6 million. Tough-on-crime policies expanded the number of imprisoned people even while reported crime rates fell to 40 percent below their levels in the 1990s. After reforms in recent years, by the end of 2016, the number of people held in U.S. prisons had declined by 6 percent since a 2009 peak. Half of the state prison population is serving time for a violent crime, including assault and robbery, and one out of every seven people in prison is serving a life sentence. While public protection is a key element of sentencing in these cases, The Sentencing Project says, harsher sentencing policies are resulting in longer prison terms for violent crimes than in the past. Many individuals are still incarcerated long after they have “aged out” of crime and no longer pose a significant public safety risk, says the group.