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Study Shows Modest Decline in Prison Populations

A February 2016 study by The Sentencing Project, “U.S. Prison Population Trends 1999-2014: Broad Variation Among States in Recent Years,” found there has been a 2.9% average decline in the number of state prisoners during that period. Over those 15 years, 39 states experienced declines and 11 had increases in their prison populations.

According to the report, “Just as mass incarceration has developed primarily as a result of changes in policy, not crime rates, so too have declines reflected changes in both policy and practice. These have included such measures as drug policy sentencing reforms, reduced admissions of technical parole violators to prison, and diversion options for persons convicted of lower-level property and drug crimes.”

The states with the greatest decline in prison populations included New Jersey at 31.4%, followed by New York at 28.1%, Rhode Island at 25.5% and California at 21.8%. Some states, like New Jersey and New York, reached their peak incarceration levels in 1999, while others, such as Ohio and Oregon, peaked as recently as 2013. The federal Bureau of Prisons reported a 2.9% decrease since 2011.

Despite the trend of declining prison populations, some states – including Nebraska, Arkansas, Wyoming, Oklahoma, New Mexico, North Dakota, Tennessee, Minnesota, Missouri, Arizona and North Carolina – experienced increases, ranging from 2.6% to 21.7%, with Nebraska having the largest increase. All had peak years in 2014, indicating their prison populations continue to grow.

The Sentencing Project study concluded by noting that states with the steepest declines in their prison populations still managed to reduce overall crime rates with no adverse effect on public safety.


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