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Number Held in U.S. Prisons and Jails Dipped in Pandemic’s Second Year

by Douglas Ankney

According to a report released by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS Report) in December 2022, “the number of persons under the jurisdiction of state or federal correctional authorities in the United States declined 1%, from 1,221,200 to 1,204,300” between December 31, 2020, and the same date one year later in 2021. The number does not include those held in local jails or in detention facilities for federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“The U.S. imprisonment rate at year-end 2021 was 350 sentenced prisoners [those serving more than one year] per 100,000 residents, a 2% decline from year-end 2020 (357 per 100,000),” the report continued.

The decline happened entirely at the state prison level, where the total number of prisoners decreased by 22,000 (down 2%), while the number held by the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) increased by 5,200 (up 3%). As the report notes, total prison population has decreased every year since 2013, making this the eighth consecutive year of decline. At year-end 2021, there were 394,600 fewer prisoners (down 25%) under the jurisdiction of state or federal prisons than a decade earlier.

Females represented almost 7% of the total prison population in 2021, up from 4% in 1978, but down from a peak of 7.6% in 2018. Each year from 2009 to 2019, more than 100,000 women were held in state or federal prison, but the number held on December 31, 2021 (83,300) was the lowest since year-end 1997 (79,200). Still 23 states and BOP “each had more female prisoners at year-end 2021 than at year-end 2020,” the report noted.

From year-end 2020 to year-end 2021, the prison populations of 17 states and BOP increased, with the biggest jumps in BOP and in California (up 1,000). Prisoner populations decreased in 32 states, including Arizona, which was down 3,900 prisoners or 10%; New York, down 3,800 or 11%; and Pennsylvania, down 2,200 or 5%. New York had 30,300 prisoners, marking 15 straight years of decline and a 58.5% decrease from a high of 72,900 prisoners at year-end 1999. Of all states, Washington had the largest percentage decrease, falling 13% (or about 2,000 prisoners).

The 2% overall decrease in state prisoners from year-end 2020 followed a 15% drop a year earlier that was largely attributed to a slowdown in new admissions from court closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, 49 states reduced their prison populations. But in 2021, states and BOP recorded 421,000 prison admissions, “about 74,600 (22%) more than in 2020.” Notably, contracted private prisons held just 96,700 people, a 3% drop from the year before.

Also notable was the demographic breakdown of the decline, which favored non-whites. There was a 4% decline in the number of Black prisoners, a 3% drop in the numbers who were Hispanic or Asian (including Native Hawaiians) and a 2% decline among American Indians or Alaska Natives. The decline in white prisoners was just 1%. See: Prisoners in 2021 – Statistical Tables (BJS 2022).  

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