Imprisonment Rate Drops to Lowest in 20 Years

April 29, 2019 Updated: April 29, 2019

The portion of Americans imprisoned has declined by more than 2 percent in 2017, making the rate drop to its lowest since 1997.

The rate has been steadily decreasing since it recorded highs of 506 per 100,000 residents in 2006 and 2007 to 440 per 100,000 in 2017, according to a recent report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) (pdf).

The rate dropped more steeply in 2017 for black adults, by 4 percent from 2016 and by 31 percent from 2007. Still, the rate was 2,336 per 100,000 black men, more than six times than the rate of white men (397 per 100,000).

A majority (55 percent) of state prisoners were serving time for a violent offense at the end of 2016. For about 15 percent, the most serious offense was drug-related. In federal prisons, on the other hand, nearly half were serving sentences for drug-related crimes, nearly all of those for drug trafficking. Less than 7 percent were in federal prison for an immigration crime as their most serious offense.

Among states with the largest prison populations, the imprisonment rate dropped in Texas (some 1.6 percent), Florida (nearly 3 percent), Georgia (almost 1 percent), and New York (more than 2.3 percent). However, it slightly increased in California (about 0.3 percent).

The total prison population was just shy of 1,490,000, the first year in more than a decade when the number dropped below 1.5 million. A little over 183,000 were serving their time in federal prisons (down 3.2 percent from 2016).

The number doesn’t include the average of nearly 750,000 people held in jails. More than 3 percent (10.6 million) of Americans were admitted to jail in 2017, with an average jail time of 26 days, the BLS estimated based on its annual survey of jails (pdf).

If the prison and average jail populations are counted together, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world—more than 680 per 100,000 residents.

Prison Reform

In December, Congress passed the First Step Act, a bipartisan bill spearheaded by Jared Kushner, White House adviser and son-in-law to President Donald Trump.

The bill aims at reducing recidivism by expanding “recidivism reduction programs” and “productive activities” for inmates in federal prisons. The programs may include life skills courses, mentoring, classes on morals or ethics, academic classes, drug addiction treatment, community services, religious classes, and prison jobs.

For every 30 days in such programs, prisoners could earn 10 credits and extra credits would go to those maintaining low-risk status. A prisoner who maintains low-risk status for a certain time could turn the credits into days spent in prerelease detention—such as home confinement, halfway houses, and community supervision—at the end of the prison term.

Certain inmates would be excluded from the credit scheme, like those sentenced for murders and other serious felonies such as terrorism offenses, sex offenses, and other crimes resulting in death.

“The more I met and spoke with those involved in our criminal justice system, the more clear it became that unfair sentencing rules were contributing to the cycle of poverty and crime like really nothing else before,” Trump said at the April 1 Prison Reform Summit at the White House. “It was time to fix this broken system—and it’s a system of the past—and to improve the lives of so many people.”

Since signing the reform into law in December, Trump has proposed a Second Step Act to make it easier for former federal prisoners to get jobs.

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