Prison Reform

  U.S. Incarceration Rates

Remain Highest in the World

Advocacy Groups Say Reform Efforts Don't Go Far Enough

By Steve Rensberry

RP News

EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. - 12/6/2020 - The United States continues to lead the world in incarceration rates, with approximately 2.2 million people currently living their lives in the country's prisons and jails, according to researchers at The Sentencing Project.

Source: The Sentencing Project
    Unfortunately, progress toward reform remains slow or even nonexistent in many states.

    "This follows a nearly 700 percent growth in the prison population between 1972 and 2009," the organization says, highlighting an online report available here. The prison population has stabilized in recent years, it says, largely through pragmatic changes in policy and practice, with a 9 percent decrease since peaking in 2009

The total prison population (state and federal) was approximately 1.4 million at the start of 2019. Adding another 740,700 in jail, 874,800 on parole, and 3,673,100 on probation raises the total number of people under control of the U.S. Corrections System to 6,613,500 individuals.

"For more than a decade, the political climate of criminal justice can be seen in a variety of legislative, judicial, and policy changes that have successfully decreased incarceration without adverse impacts on public safety," the organization says. It cites Proposition 47 which California voters passed in 2014, in which certain lower level crimes were reclassified to misdemeanors; as well as reform efforts targeting the Rockefeller drug laws in 2009; the Fair Sentencing Act, passed in 2010, reducing sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses; and a decision in 2014 by the United States Sentencing Commission to reduce excessive sentences for up to 46,000 people in prison for federal drug offenses. See: criminal justice facts.

    Not all states are seeing the same results, however, with six states having seen no reduction from peak levels, and 25 states seeing prison reductions of less than 10 percent. The states of Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, Kansas and Oregon actually increased, recording their highest prison populations ever in 2018.

Reforms have been the exception for anyone imprisoned for violent crimes, such as burglary, robbery, assault, rape or murder. "Overall, the number of people imprisoned for a violent offense has only declined by 2 percent between the year 2009 and 2017, despite substantial declines in violence since the mid-1990s," the organization states in its publication, U.S. Prison Decline: Insufficient to Undo Mass Incarceration.

Why are so many Americans in prison? One common view is that longer sentences and an overzealous drug war have played a big part, which they have, but Forham Law School Professor John Pfaff cites other significant trends, namely a trend by district attorneys to file an increasing number of felony charges, in effect becoming much more aggressive and sending far more people to prison.

"I can't tell you why they're doing that," Pfaff said, in a 2015 article by Leon Neyfakh for, Why So Many Americans are in Prison? A Provocative New Theory. "No one's really got an answer to that yet. But it does seem that the number of felony cases filed shoots up very strongly, even as the number of arrests goes down."

Pfaff cites data showing a sharp rise in crime and the prison population from 1975-1991, with violent crime rising by 400 percent from 1960-1991, and property crime by 200 percent. He estimates that as much as half of the prison growth during that period could be attributed to rising crime.

Source: The Sentencing Project
The interesting thing was that from 1991-2010 crime was on the decline, and fewer people were being arrested. The prison population, however, kept climbing.

    "What appears to happen during this time—the years I look at are 1994 to 2008, just based on the data that’s available—is that the probability that a district attorney files a felony charge against an arrestee goes from about 1 in 3, to 2 in 3. So over the course of the ’90s and 2000s, district attorneys just got much more aggressive in how they filed charges. Defendants who they would not have filed felony charges against before, they now are charging with felonies," Pfaff states.

One possible explanation, he said, is that the crime boom made the prosecutor's position somewhat of a "launch-pad position" with respect to political ambitions, so appearing to be "tough on crime" was important -- even though crime was going down. The data is unclear, however.

The Sentencing Project cites the following in a fact sheet about prisons:

  • The number of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons increased by 9.7% from 1,391,261 to 1,526,792 between 2000 and 2015.
  • In addition to the nearly 1.5 million people in state and federal prisons, there were 721,300 people in local jails in 2015, yielding a total incarcerated population of 2.2 million.
  • Between 2010 and 2015 the number of people in prison decreased by 4.9%.
  • 1 in every 115 adults in America was in prison or jail in 2015.4.6 million people were on probation or parole in 2015 for a total of 6.7 million people in America under some form of criminal justice supervision.
  • The 2015 U.S. incarceration rate of 670 people per 100,000 population is the highest in the world.