A study by the non-partisan Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project, titled “U.S. Prison Population Trends 1999-2014: Broad Variation Among States in Recent Years,” found there has been an average 2.9% decline in the number of state prisoners over that period of time. During the 15-year period examined, 39 states experienced declines and 11 had increases in their prison populations.
According to the study, “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.” Those policies and practices “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 declines in their prison populations from 1999 to 2014 were New Jersey at 31.4%, closely followed by New York at 28.1%, Rhode Island at 25.5%, California at 21.8%, Connecticut at 18.5%, and Mississippi and Hawaii with declines of 17.6% and 17.2%, respectively. Other states with double-digit decreases included Michigan, Vermont, Alaska, South Carolina and Colorado. Some of those states, like New Jersey and New York, reached their peak incarceration levels in 1999, while others, including Vermont and South Carolina, peaked as recently as 2009.
Despite the general trend of declining prison populations, other states, such as Nebraska, Arkansas, Wyoming, Oklahoma, New Mexico, North Dakota, Tennessee, Minnesota, Missouri, Arizona and North Carolina, experienced prison population increases ranging from 21.7% (Nebraska) to 2.6% (North Carolina).
The Sentencing Project study, released in February 2016, concluded by noting that the states experiencing the steepest declines in prison populations still managed to reduce their overall crime rates with no apparent adverse effect on public safety.
Mirroring the national average, the federal prison population has declined 2.9% since 2011; until that point the number of federal prisoners had steadily increased, largely due to an expansion in the incarceration of immigration law violators.
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