U.S. Correctional Population at Lowest Level in Over a Decade


Correctional Population

The nation’s jail and prison population decreased in 2015, according to federal data released last Thursday, and the number of adults locked up or on parole or probation fell to a level not seen since 2002 while overall crime continued to drop.

Reasons for the declining incarceration rates include the federal prison system releasing thousands of nonviolent drug offenders in 2015 and states seeking to save money by enacting legislation and policies to reduce prison populations.

Reasons for the declining incarceration rates include the federal prison system releasing thousands of nonviolent drug offenders in 2015 and states seeking to save money by enacting legislation and policies to reduce prison populations.

In California, for example, Proposition 47 — approved by voters in 2014 — retroactively reduced some drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Other states have offered expanded substance abuse treatment programs, established specialty courts and spent more money on re-entry programs aimed at reducing recidivism.

The 2015 data was compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in an annual report that focuses on the nation’s prison and jail populations. Data for 2016 will not be available until next December.

Adults in jail, prison, on parole or probation: 6.7 million

The figure represents about 1 in 37, or 2.7 percent, of all adults in the United States, a level far higher than in most other nations but the lowest rate in America since 1994. Of those 6.7 million adults, some 2.2 million were in local jails or in state and federal prisons — about 51,000 fewer than in 2014. The rest were either on probation (about 3.8 million) or parole (about 870,000).

Total prison population: 1.5 million

The number of inmates held in state and federal prisons, where most of those who are incarcerated are kept, fell to its lowest level since 2005. The 2.3 percent decrease since 2014 in the number of prisoners represented the largest decline since 1978. The year with the most prisoners on record was 2009, when there were about 1.6 million inmates.

State and federal prisons admitted 608,300 people in 2015 — 17,800 fewer than in 2014 — and released 641,000, about 4,700 more than in 2014.

Significantly, the report found that more than 2 percent of men ages 30 to 34 had been sentenced to more than a year in state or federal prison by the end of 2015. For those in that age group, imprisonment rates were 5,948 per 100,000 black males; 2,365 per 100,000 Hispanic males; and 1,101 per 100,000 white males.

Percentage of adult men in prison: 1

Some 1.4 million men were in prison in 2015, down 30,000 inmates or 2.1 percent from a year earlier. The number of women in prison (105,000) fell more modestly, by 1,100 inmates or about 1 percent.

Imprisonment rates for white, black and Latino adults were all at their lowest levels since 2005. The rate of imprisonment for black adults decreased 4 percent, to 1,745 per 100,000. For Latinos, the figure dropped 5 percent to 820 per 100,000. The rate for white adults was virtually unchanged at 312 per 100,000.

The overall imprisonment rate — 458 prisoners per 100,000 United States residents — was the lowest since 1997.

Federal inmates convicted of drug crimes: 50 percent

Half of all federal inmates were serving sentences in 2015 for drug offenses, while 7 percent had been convicted of violent crimes. By contrast, about 53 percent of state prisoners had been imprisoned for violent offenses, while about 16 percent had been convicted of drug crimes and 19 percent for property crimes.

Drop in crime from 2010 to 2015: 14.6 percent

While the nation’s imprisonment rate fell by more than 8 percent from 2010 to 2015, violent and property crimes have dropped at even higher levels — a combined 14.6 percent. A study released on Thursday by the Pew Charitable Trusts showed that the 10 states with the largest declines in imprisonment during that time span, including California, Texas and New Jersey, saw crime fall an average of 14.4 percent.

Timothy Williams
New York Times

About Timothy Williams

Timothy Williams is a reporter for the New York Times.