A yearly decline in state and federal prison populations has led to the lowest rate of imprisonment (measured as commitment to a prison for more than one year) since 1997, when the rate was 450 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. population. Data released from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) Wednesday, shows that the rate in 2016 was 444 per 100,000, marking three successive years of decline in the national incarceration rate.
The decline in prison population was seen across black, Hispanic, and white inmates.
“The rate of imprisonment decreased 4 percent for black adults (from 1,670 to 1,608 per 100,000), 2 percent for white adults (from 281 to 274 per 100,000) and 1 percent for adult Hispanic prisoners (from 862 to 856 per 100,000),” the BJS reported.
According to the data, the majority (54 percent) of state-level offenders were incarcerated for violent offenses, as of 2016. Federal offenders, who make up less than ten percent of the incarcerated population, were primarily incarcerated for drug-related offenses. Those drug offenses were “more than 99 percent” for trafficking.
The report revealed a significantly high concentration of non-citizens among federal offenders in 2016: 21 percent at year-end, not counting those detained by the Department of Homeland Security. A recent DHS report found that 94 percent of confirmed non-citizens in federal custody were unlawfully present in the United States.
The overall pattern of decline is part of a noteworthy reversal of trend that began under President Barack Obama. The federal prison population fell five percent between 2009 and 2015, according to a Pew Research analysis, the first time there had been such a decline since Jimmy Carter’s presidency.
State and federal prison populations saw the largest growth between the Carter and Obama presidencies, driven by policies responding to America’s crime rates, which increased steadily between the late 1960s and early 1990s, according to the report. Even after crime rates hit their peak in 1993 and began to decline, incarceration increased. By 2015, the United States had the highest rate of incarceration on earth.
America’s prison system has been under attack lately, with research suggesting, including a 2012 Berkeley study, that incarceration’s effectiveness at reducing crime may decline over time.