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U.S. Prisoner Numbers Slowly Declining

by Ed Lyon

New data released in December 2022 by the federal Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) showed a steady decline in prison population from 2011 to 2021 – nearly 25% overall. The number of people imprisoned today – 1,163,665 – reflects the largest slice of U.S. mass incarceration, but it is only a slice; over a half-million other Americans are locked up in local jails, and 100,000 more have been involuntarily committed to state hospitals or are being held in immigration and juvenile detention centers.

According to the BJS report, Prisoners in 2021, the number of Americans imprisoned in December 2021 was 1,163,665 – about the same as 25 years earlier. Since the total population has grown by 23% since then, that means incarceration rates today are lower. However, with 350 of every 100,000 citizens in prison, the U.S. rate remains higher than in any other country.

Prison numbers peaked in 2009 at 1,553,574 and by 2011 stood at 1,538,874. Over half of the decline since 2011 was recorded just between 2019 and 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. This strongly suggests that falling prison population numbers do not reflect a dip in arrests nor an increase in releases. Rather the drop-off is largely due to reduced intakes caused by court slowdowns during the pandemic. Other surveys indicate that 2021’s low number was already on the rise again as the pandemic recedes. [See: PLN, June 2022, p.44.]

The federal Bureau of Prisons remained the nation’s top incarcerator, with 157,314 prisoners. The top three states by numbers of incarcerated individuals were Texas, with 133,772 prisoners; California, with 101,441 prisoners; and Florida, with 80,417 prisoners. Well below were Georgia and Ohio, with 47,010 and 45,029 prisoners, respectively.

Rounding out the top ten, another five states each held over 30,000 prisoners:  Pennsylvania, with 37,194; Arizona, with 33,914; Michigan, with 32,186; Virginia, with 30,357; and New York, with 30,338.

California’s prison system recorded the biggest drop over the decade, shedding 48,128 prisoners, or just over 32% of its 2011 total. The percentage drop in New York was even higher at over 45%.

“Imprisonment rates declined for both sexes and for all racial or ethnic groups from yearend 2020 to yearend 2021,” the report noted. However, Black Americans continue to experience a much higher incidence of incarceration than other races – about 901 of every 100,000 people, compared to just 101 of every 100,000 whites.

Private prisons held about 96,700 people, just 8.3% of the total imprisoned in the U.S. That number was also down from the previous year.

Additional source: Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2023, Prison Policy Initiative (2023)