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Prison Population Declines Need Explanation
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Published: 01/29/2018

Inmate jail So what’s driving the decline in the prison population? Is it decreasing crime and arrests or new correctional policies or both?

Recent Media Coverage

After peaking in 2008, the nation’s imprisonment rate fell 11 percent over eight years, reaching its lowest level since 1997, according to an analysis of new federal statistics by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The decline from 2015-16 was 2 percent, much of which was due to a drop in the number of federal prisoners. The rate at which black adults are imprisoned fell 4 percent from 2015-16 and has declined 29 percent over the past decade, Pew.

Multiple media sources state that the US prison population dropped for the third year in a row.

Some praise less reliance on prison beds as a response to crime and criminal justice policy.

What Are There Reasons for the Decline?

This site has tracked America’s prison and correctional populations for close to a decade and the reasons for the decline are many. Issues include:

Record lows for crime over the course of the last two decades except for the rise in violent crime for 2015 and 2016 per the FBI, US Crime.

Significant reductions in arrests for most categories, see FBI-Arrests.

Demands on the part of governors to reign in prison costs, considered by many to be the driving force in correctional and sentencing reform.

Example Data

There are close to two million fewer arrests comparing 2006 to 2015 for a 22 percent reduction (link above).

There are close to 390,000 fewer violent crimes from 1997 to 2016 per the FBI. There are close to 3,640,000 fewer property crimes for the same time period. The numbers will be considerably greater if one uses data from the National Crime Survey that counts reported andunreported crime.


The debate over the efficacy of the reduction in prison populations seems somewhat meaningless. Whether you believe in incarceration or see it as a plague upon society seems irrelevant. Note that there are also reductions in the overall correctional population (i.e., jail and parole and probation).

The same applies to sentencing reform or changes in criminal justice policy to move people out of prison faster or to delay their reentry after violations, the driving force seems to be significantly less crime and dramatically fewer arrests over the long term.

There have been significant policy changes at the state level. Since that 2008 peak, 36 states reduced their imprisonment rates, including declines of 15 percent or more in 20 states from diverse regions of the country, such as Alaska, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Connecticut, Pew.

Most of the states involved in sentencing reform have reduced sentences or raised the bar as to what constitutes a felony or have legalized activities such as possession of marijuana, thus its fair to suggest that sentences to prison are not only fewer but shorter.

But It’s Obvious That We Support Incarceration

Crime and arrests decreased considerably for most of the last twenty years yet according to Pew, the decrease in the prison population fell by 11 percent during the last eight years. Considering the huge decreases in crime and arrests, you would think reductions in prison commitments would be concurrent. They are not.

According to the report below, state and federal prisons admitted 2,300 fewer prisoners in 2016 than in 2015. The BOP accounted for the majority (96 percent) of the decline, down 2,200 admissions. If there are declines in the prison population for this time period, they are very small.

Some suggest that rising violent crime, Crime in America, in most American cities and the country in 2015 and 2016 (and possibly for 2017) may be the result of fewer incarcerations for shorter periods of time. There is data from the US Sentencing Commission suggesting that longer sentences reduce crime, US Sentencing Commission. Note that there are considerable differences between federal and state recidivism that is probably based on federal inmates staying longer and aging out of crime.

Many of us (including this writer) support sentencing reform for minor offenders. Marijuana needs to be decriminalized, we have bigger fish to fry. We should do everything possible to deter minor offenders from entry to the criminal justice system (i.e., drug courts, veteran courts, mental health courts). I have seen sentences for burglary (the defendant was mentally ill) that far outstripped the seriousness of the crime. There are older inmates that could be released based on reduced criminality. Female inmates have considerably lower rates of recidivism.

But when you consider that 54 percent of inmates are serving sentences for violent crime, and per federal data on state sentences, the vast majority are in for multi-repeat felonies, it’s probable that those in prison belong there because of their risk to public safety. Sentencing reform will always run into problems because few want to be lenient to people who destroy the lives of other people, especially those who do so repeatably.

It’s also clear that most released offenders return to crime and most go back to prison, Crime in America.

Report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics

The number of prisoners in state and federal correctional facilities fell by 1 percent from year-end 2015 to 2016, the Bureau of Justice Statistics announced today. This was the third consecutive year that the U.S. prison population declined.

State and federal prisons held an estimated 1,505,400 prisoners in 2016, 21,200 fewer than in 2015. The population of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) accounted for more than a third (34 percent) of the total change in the prison population, dropping by 7,300 prisoners, from 196,500 to 189,200 prisoners. Although the overall prison population decreased, the number of prisoners held in private facilities increased 2 percent in 2016.

State and federal prisons admitted 2,300 fewer prisoners in 2016 than in 2015. The BOP accounted for the majority (96 percent) of the decline, down 2,200 admissions.

More than half (54 percent) of state prisoners were serving sentences for violent offenses at year-end 2015, the most recent year for which data were available. Nearly half (47 percent) of federal prisoners had been sentenced for drug offenses as of Sept. 30, 2016, the most recent date for which federal offense data were available. More than 99 percent of those drug sentences were for trafficking.

In 2016, the rate at which people were sentenced to more than one year in state or federal prison (imprisonment rate) was the lowest since 1997. There were 450 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents held in state and federal prisons in 2016, compared to 444 prisoners per 100,000 in 1997.

The imprisonment rate decreased for non-Hispanic adult black, non-Hispanic adult white and adult Hispanic prisoners from 2015 to 2016. The rate of imprisonment decreased 4 percent for black adults (from 1,670 to 1,608 per 100,000), 2 percent for white adults (from 281 to 274 per 100,000) and 1 percent for adult Hispanic prisoners (from 862 to 856 per 100,000).

During the decade between 2006 and 2016, the rate of imprisonment decreased 29 percent for black adults, 15 percent for white adults and 20 percent for Hispanic adults.


Prisoners in 2016

Reprinted with permission from http://www.crimeinamerica.net.

Contact us at crimeinamerica@gmail.com or for media on deadline, use leonardsipes@gmail.com.

Leonard A. Sipes, Jr has thirty-five years of experience supervising public affairs for national and state criminal justice agencies. He is the Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse and the Former Director of Information Management for the National Crime Prevention Council. He has a Post Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and is the author of the book "Success With the Media". He can be reached via email at leonardsipes@gmail.com.


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