US Prison Population Decreased 15% in 2020

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Photo by Neil Conway via Flickr.

In 2020, the number of persons held in state or federal prisons in the United States declined 15 percent, from 1,430,200 at year-end 2019 to 1,215,800 at year-end 2020, according to  statistics released Tuesday by the Bureau of Justice  Statistics (BJS). 

The 2020 imprisonment rate of 358 per 100,000 U.S. residents is the lowest seen since 1992, BJS said.

Inmate releases during the COVID-19 pandemic accounted for most of the decline, according to the report. Trial delays were another factor. Because courts significantly altered operations, they took in 40 percent less cases in state and federal prison compared to 2019. 

Other highlights noted by the BJS researchers: nine states showed decreases in the number of persons in prison by at least 20 percent, with Alaska being the only state to show an increase (2 percent) of the prison population. In some jurisdictions across the country, the declines in prison population were anywhere between 7 and 31 percent. 

Nebraska, however, was the only state with a 2020 custody population that exceeded its maximum capacity at 2020’s year-end at 118.8 percent, while Rhode Island had the lowest prison percentage capacity, with only 51.3 percent of their state prison facilities capacities filled. 

In terms of race and equity, from 2010 to 2020, researchers found that the sentenced imprisonment rate for U.S. residents fell across the racial and ethnic board: 37 percent decline among Blacks; 32 percent decline among Hispanics; 32 percent decline among Asians, Native Hawaiians, and Other Pacific Islanders; 26 decline among whites; and 25 percent decline among American Indians and Alaska Natives.

The full “Prisoners in 2020” BJS report can be accessed here. 

This summary was prepared by Associate Editor Andrea Cipriano.

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