23 May 2019 :
The U.S. Prison Population is Shrinking. In 2018, the number of prisoners hit a seven-year low. Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) researchers collected year-end 2017 and 2018 prison population data directly from state departments of corrections and the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) on the number of people in state and federal prisons on December 31, 2018, in order to provide timely information on how prison incarceration is changing in the United States. This report fills a gap until the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) releases its 2018 annual report—likely in early 2020—which will include additional data, such as population breakdowns by race and sex. Specifically, Vera studied both prison populations and incarceration rates at the state and federal levels and demonstrated both the overall U.S. incarceration trend as well as trends within individual regions and states. The overall 1.8% decline in the national prison incarceration rate was driven by the large decrease in the number of people in federal prisons, as well as greater than 5% declines in incarceration rates in seven states. However, the declines were not universal. Mass incarceration is still on the rise in some states, such as Indiana, Texas, and Wyoming. The nearly 20,000-person drop in the number of people in state and federal prisons continues a seven-year decline in the total U.S. prison population. As of December 2018, there were 144,200 fewer people in prison since the peak population in 2009, representing an 8.9% reduction. The number of people in U.S. prisons fell just under 1.5 million last year (1,471,200), a 1.3 percent decrease, according to a report released today by the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice. The prison population declined in 31 states last year, bringing the number of people in state custody down to about 1.3 million. In the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which holds a smaller share of the nation’s prisoners, the population in custody edged down 1.6 percent to 180,000. Advocates for prison reform have come to rely on Vera’s data as the federal reports are increasingly outdated. The Bureau of Justice Statistics compiles a comprehensive data set on people in prison, which includes demographic information. But because of budget cuts the latest report, released in 2018, covers prisoners in 2016. The 2017 data is set to be released on Thursday. Timely data on the people in prison helps analysts and legislators understand where criminal justice changes are having the biggest impact, said Jacob Kang-Brown, one of the study’s authors. “This report shows whether states are following through and reducing the number of people that are locked up in prison,” he said, and which are “bucking the trend.” Vera compiled prison population numbers for each year directly from the BOP and state corrections departments. If the numbers were not available online, they requested data from communications or statistics officials. Researchers credit sentencing reductions and other criminal justice changes at the state and federal levels for the decline. In recent years many state legislators have passed measures to increase opportunities for probation and parole, and to lessen penalties for some crimes. Still, in several states incarceration is rising. In some instances, reforms have backfired. Many states have opted to use probation in lieu of incarceration only to wind up sending more people to prison for technical violations. States with largest percent decrease in prison population from 2017-2018 are Missouri, Delaware, Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts. States with largest percent increase in prison population from 2017-2018 are Iowa, Idaho, Vermont, Utah, Indiana. In some states, crime rates have dropped to historic lows, which has also slowed the pace of incarceration. New York experienced one of the largest single-year declines in prison population, continuing a decade-long trend. In 2017, the legislature did not pass any criminal justice measures that specifically addressed sentencing or the prison population. Yet between 2017 and 2018 the state incarcerated nearly 3,000 fewer people, as the prison population fell to roughly 47,000. Crime in New York is at its lowest level since 1975, which prison officials say is behind the decrease in incarceration. Earlier this year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced plans to close up to three prisons as a result of the shrinking prison population. Violent crime in Missouri, in contrast to New York, is rising, and the prison population steadily increased between 2010 and 2017. But for the past several years, lawmakers have been looking for ways to relieve their overcrowded and expensive prison system. In 2014, they passed a bill to reduce criminal sentences for the first time since the 1970s. Prison officials credit the 2014 law changes, which went into effect in 2017, for reducing the number of state prisoners to about 30,000 last year, down from 32,000 the previous year. The new law reduced marijuana possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, which carries no prison time, and also cut sentences for some felonies. After the landmark legislation went into effect, former Gov. Eric Greitens commissioned a taskforce to transform the state’s prison system and signed on the Pew Charitable Trusts and The Council of State Governments to help. In June 2018, Gov. Mike Parson signed legislation increasing mental health and substance abuse treatment for people on parole or probation, and adding a new state-run taskforce to combat violent crime.