The United States’ Inordinately High Prison Population Is Getting Slightly Lower


The United States retains, by a long shot, the highest imprisonment rate of any major developed country in the world, according to the most recent figures available. But for the third consecutive year, the prison population is dropping. In 2012, the prison population decreased 1.7 percent, thanks largely to budget-driven state criminal justice reform, and a U.S. Supreme Court order that California reduce its prison overcrowding.

While the state prison population declined in raw terms, the federal population actually increased by a minor 0.7 percent between 2011 and 2012, as harsh mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug crimes continue to bloat prisons. The Bureau of Justice Statistics attributes the increase in the federal prison population to prisoners who are being held in prison before sentencing, or are sentenced to less than a year. Because it excludes those two groups from the “rate” of incarceration, it concludes that the imprisonment “rate” has actually dropped.

Slight variations aside, the United States continues to incarcerate inordinate numbers of people, and the 2012 incarceration rate of 626 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. adult residents is more than twice that of any European nation. At the federal level, immigration and drug offenders made up more than half of federal prisoners in 2011. At the state level, California accounts for 51 percent of the population drop, thanks to the court-motivated prison realignment program, in which prisoners are moved from state prisons to county jails, where local sheriffs have greater discretion over how to deal with offenders – for better or for worse — and may send them to mental health treatment, home surveillance, or community service rather than hold them behind bars. Twenty-eight other states saw drops in their populations, now that many are adopting forward-thinking reforms and decriminalizing minor drug offenses. States are motivated in part by the soaring cost of imprisonment. According to recent estimates, overall state spending on prisons was the fastest-growing budgetary item after Medicaid.

Thus far, the federal government has not taken up the sorts of reforms many states are now considering, although a bipartisan bill introduced in Congress would reform draconian mandatory minimum sentences. The Department of Justice and individual prosecutors are now also calling for the U.S. Sentencing Commission to amend its laws. But in a report noting the 790 percent spike in the federal prison population since 1980, the Congressional Research Service calls for not just repealing or reducing the sentences for mandatory minimums, but also repealing federal criminal statutes wholesale, and expanding early release and probation programs, particularly for nonviolent criminals. While a small but growing number of conservatives are beginning to support criminal justice reform, the private prison industry remains an obstacle to reducing the number of prison beds.