Prison Population Falls for First Time in 50 Years

New figures released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that the total corrections population in the United States declined last year for the first time since 1980.
The 7.2 million persons under supervision – in prison, jail, or under probation or parole supervision – declined by 48,800, or 0.7 percent from the previous year.
The new report also shows the first decline in the overall state prison population since 1977 – 24 states measured prisoner reductions during 2009. This is in marked contrast to the federal prison system, which grew by 3.4 percent.
“The decline in the criminal justice population is likely due to pressures brought on by the fiscal crisis, along with increased interest in effective public safety strategies,” said Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project. “It’s now clear that we can reduce prison populations without jeopardizing public safety.”
The new figures confirm that correctional populations are in large part a function of policy choices and not necessarily a direct outcome of crime rates. The decline in state prison admissions, for example, was largely a function of a 4.5 percent decline in the number of parole violators sentenced to prison.
Parole violators now represent more than a third of new prison admissions, more than double the proportion of the 1980s. Many of these cases are a function of discretionary decisions by parole officers responding to technical violations of parole.
Similarly, a 2010 report by The Sentencing Project and Justice Strategies, “Downscaling Prisons: Lessons from Four States,” documented sustained prison population reductions of 5-20 percent in four states – Kansas, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York – in the past decade.
In each of these states, changes in sentencing policy and parole practice were significant contributors to the population reductions.
The new BJS reports also offer evidence of a continuing decline in the number of incarcerated African American females. From 2000-2009, there was a 31 percent reduction in their rate of incarceration, compared to a 47 percent rise among incarcerated white females and an increase of 23 percent for Hispanic females. According to recent analyses by The Sentencing Project, these trends may be related to shifting trends in the implementation of drug enforcement laws.