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Department of Justice Report Shows Small Decrease in U.S. Prison Population

by Scott Grammer

A report by Jennifer Bronson, Ph.D. and E. Ann Carson, Ph.D., released by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) in April 2019, found that at the end of 2017, the state and federal prison population had decreased by 1.2 percent from the previous year. The report stated that “[d]uring the same period, the number of prisoners under the jurisdiction of federal correctional authorities decreased by 6,100 (down 3%), and the number of prisoners under the jurisdiction of state correctional authorities fell by 12,600 (down 1%).” Those findings were based on the National Prisoner Statistics (NPS) program, administered by the BJS.

The report noted that “[t]he imprisonment rate for sentenced prisoners under state or federal jurisdiction decreased 2.1% from 2016 to 2017 (from 450 to 440 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents) and 13% from 2007 to 2017 (from 506 to 440 per 100,000).” It also found that 55 percent of prisoners in state facilities were incarcerated for violent offenses at the end of 2016, the last year for which data was available. But in the federal prison system, nearly 50 percent of federal prisoners “were serving a sentence for a drug-trafficking offense at fiscal year-end 2017.”

The private prison population dropped five percent from 2016 to 2017. Montana had the highest percentage of its prisoners held in for-profit prisons (38.1 percent). Other states with large private prison populations included Montana, Hawaii, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Arizona.

Importantly, according to the report, “[t]he imprisonment rate of sentenced black adults declined by 4% from 2016 to 2017 and by 31% from 2007 to 2017.” Still, at year-end 2017, “the imprisonment rate for sentenced black males (2,336 per 100,000 black male U.S. residents) was almost six times that of sentenced white males (397 per 100,000 white male U.S. residents).” The report also found that “[a]t year-end 2016, an estimated 60% of Hispanics and blacks sentenced to serve more than one year in state prison had been convicted of and sentenced for a violent offense, compared to 48% of white prisoners.”

The number of female prisoners nationwide dropped by 470 from 2016 to the end of 2017, a decline of 0.4 percent, while the number of male prisoners dropped by almost 18,300 (1.3 percent). Texas reduced its female prison population the most, while Tennessee increased its female prisoner population during the same time period. The imprisonment rate for women was highest in Oklahoma (157 per 100,000 female residents of the state).

Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas all share the dubious distinction of having more than one percent of their male residents in prison. 

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Source: “Prisoners in 2017,” U.S. Department of Justice (April 2019)