Report Shows Prison Population Increases, Decreases

WASHINGTON — The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, released new data on April 8 showing incarceration trends across the U.S. Two-thirds of states (34) have experienced at least a modest decline in prison population since 1999, while one third (16) have seen continued increases, according to the study “U.S. Prison Population Trends: Broad Variation Among States in Recent Years.”

Since 1999, nine states have produced double-digit declines during this period, led by New Jersey, whose prison population has declined 29 percent since 1999, New York, which saw a 27 percent decline over the same period, and California which showed a 22 percent decline since 2006. These prison population reductions have come about through a mix of changes in policy and practice designed to reduce admissions to prison and lengths of stay, according to the report. More recent data has also shown that these substantial reductions have had no adverse effect on public safety.

An earlier report by The Sentencing Project, “Fewer Prisons, Less Crime: A Tale of Three States,” showed that New Jersey in particular had made efforts to downscale its prisons through both front-end reforms affecting the number of admissions and sentence lengths and back-end reforms that increased rates of parole and reduced parole revocations. That report also noted California’s realignment approach has made “significant reductions” to the state’s prison population, and that New York tackled its once surging prison population, which peaked in 1999 at nearly 73,000, through “a combination of changes in policy and practice that largely affected enforcement and sentencing for drug offenses in New York City.”

Despite increases across a number of states, the current report maintains that the overall pace of population growth is actually quite modest when considering the scale of U.S. incarceration. Since 2009, the nation’s total prison population has dropped by 2.4 percent. However, five states that experienced prison growth — Arkansas, Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming and Utah — actually saw their populations rise by double digits percentages. Arkansas saw the starkest increase with a 17 percent uptick in just the last seven years.

The latest report also noted that, while the states that saw the highest population increases shared in the national crime drop, they also resisted the trend toward decarceration. Additionally, 16 of the states that saw a decline in their prison population experienced a drop of just 5 percent or less since their peak years. The decline in the federal prison population has held steady at 1 percent since 2011, according to the report.