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New Prison and Jail Population Figures Released by U.S. Department of Justice

Statement of Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project

WASHINGTON DC – “The declines in prison and jail populations reported by the Department of Justice today are encouraging, but still fall far short of what is necessary to end mass incarceration anytime soon. The prison population decreases are heavily influenced by a handful of states that have reduced their populations by 30% or more in recent years. As of yearend 2017 more than half the states were still experiencing increases in their populations or rates of decline only in the single digits. In order to achieve significant reductions policymakers will need to scale back excessive sentencing for all offenses, a key factor which distinguishes the U.S. from other nations.”

The DOJ figures for yearend 2017 reveal the following:

  • The United States remains as the world leader in its rate of incarceration, locking up its citizens at 5-10 times the rate of other industrialized nations.
  • A 2018 analysis by The Sentencing Project revealed that at the current rate of decline it would take 75 years to cut the prison population by 50%.
  • By yearend 2017, the US prison population declined by 7.3% since reaching its peak level in 2009. In the federal system, the decline was 15.7% (since peak year 2011).
  • Six states have reduced their prison populations by at least 30% over the past two decades – Alaska, Connecticut, California, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont. This has come about through a mix of changes in policy and practice within the states.
  • Eleven states, including Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Washington have yet to downsize their prison populations, registering their greatest prison population counts in 2017.
  • Although the violent crime rate has plummeted to half of its early-1990s level, the number of people imprisoned for a violent offense grew until 2009, and has since declined by just 2%.
  • The population of people serving life sentences is now at a record high. One of every seven individuals in prison – 206,000 – is serving life. For purposes of comparison, the U.S. has five times the population of the United Kingdom, but 1,000 times the number of people serving life without parole.
  • The rate of women’s incarceration has been rising at a faster rate than men’s since the 1980s, and declines in recent years have been slower than among men. Women in state prisons are more likely to be incarcerated for a drug offense than men – 25% vs. 14% – and less likely to be incarcerated for a violent offense – 38% vs. 57%.
  • Racial disparities in women’s incarceration have changed dramatically since the start of the century. Black women were incarcerated at 6 times the rate of white women in 2000, while the 2016 figure is now 1.8 times that rate. These changes have been a function of both a declining number of black women in prison and a rising number of white women. For Hispanic women, the ratio has changed from 1.6 times that of white women in 2000 to 1.4 times in 2016.

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The Sentencing Project
1705 DeSales Street NW 8th Floor | Washington, District of Columbia 20036
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The Sentencing Project works for a fair and effective U.S. justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration.