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Lowest Rate Of Incarceration In A Decade - Why?
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Published: 05/20/2019


There is nothing more contentious than the debate over incarceration. We are told that America has the world’s highest rate of imprisonment.

Declining rates and numbers incarcerated should be expected. We have an almost continuous twenty-year decline in violence and property crimes with mixed numbers since 2015. Seventy percent reductions (and more) in crime are reported, Crime in the US.

My surprise is not declining rates of incarceration, it’s bewilderment that they haven’t dropped more.

Fiscal Realities

I’ve always said that the primary imperative of crime control policy is fiscal in nature. Agency heads survive by staying in budget.

Governors are adamant that correctional costs be reduced. In a world that demands more money for schools, roads, the elderly, medical care, and salary increases, increasing correctional budgets are a burden.

Criminal justice reformers demand fewer incarcerations and shorter sentences; they have a valid point at times. I’ve seen a judge give a ten-year sentence for a burglary when the offender was clearly mentally ill. Not everyone needs to go to prison and not all sentences need to be so long. It’s a discussion worth having


But the average violent inmate serves less than three years in prison, Violent Offenders. Ninety-five percent are plea-bargained to lesser charges. Most have extensive arrest and conviction records before getting a prison term. Most felony convictions do not get sentenced to prison, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The overwhelming majority of those released from prison are rearrested or reincarcerated, Recidivism.

People go to prison because they have committed a serious violent crime or they have multiple arrests and convictions. People go to prison because they deserve to be there. People go to prison because victims demand justice. People go to prison because parole and probation agencies cannot promise accountability, Parole and Probation.

We have debated rates of incarceration for decades and, quite frankly, they remain high. After endless papers and reports about inequities, they remain high. There have been seismic shifts as to American public opinion regarding an array of pressing social issues yet incarceration remains high.

Maybe there’s a reason for the intransigence of the American public. Maybe they demand accountability for people who have grievously harmed society. Maybe the #MeToo movement is being taken seriously.

Regardless, there is room for discussion as to who goes to prison and the length of stay.

Major Point - Bureau Of Justice Statistics Reports On Prison And Jail Inmates

The prison incarceration rate dropped 2.1% from 2016 to 2017, bringing it to the lowest level since 1997.

From 2007 to 2017, incarceration rates in both prisons and jails decreased by more than 10%.

Among racial groups, the imprisonment rate for sentenced black adults declined by 31% from 2007 to 2017 and by 4% from 2016 to 2017, the largest declines of any racial group.

Among state prisoners sentenced to more than one year, more than half (55%) were serving a sentence for a violent offense.


From 2007 to 2017, incarceration rates in both prisons and jails decreased by more than 10%, according to reports released today by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Over a decade, the incarceration rate among state and federal prisoners sentenced to more than a year dropped by 13%, from 506 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents in 2007 to 440 prisoners per 100,000 in 2017. The prison incarceration rate also dropped 2.1% from 2016 to 2017, bringing it to the lowest level since 1997.

The jail incarceration rate decreased by 12% from 2007 to 2017, from 259 to 229 jail inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents, but did not decline from 2016 to 2017.

The U.S. prison population was 1.5 million prisoners at year-end 2017, and the population of jail inmates in the U.S. was 745,000 at midyear 2017. There were 1.3 million prisoners under state jurisdiction and 183,000 under federal jurisdiction. From the end of 2016 to the end of 2017, the number of prisoners under federal jurisdiction declined by 6,100 (down 3%), while the number of prisoners under state jurisdiction fell by 12,600 (down 1%).

By citizenship status, non-citizens made up roughly the same portion of the U.S. prison population (7.6%) as of the total U.S. population (7.0%, per the U.S. Census Bureau). This is based on prisoners held in the custody of publicly or privately operated state or federal prisons.

Among racial groups, the imprisonment rate for sentenced black adults declined by 31% from 2007 to 2017 and by 4% from 2016 to 2017, the largest declines of any racial group.

However, the imprisonment rate for sentenced black males was more than twice the rate for sentenced Hispanic males and almost six times that for sentenced white males (2,336 per 100,000 black males compared to 1,054 per 100,000 Hispanic males and 397 per 100,000 white males). The rate for sentenced black females was almost double that for sentenced white females (92 per 100,000 black females compared to 49 per 100,000 white females).

Among state prisoners sentenced to more than one year, more than half (55%) were serving a sentence for a violent offense at year-end 2016, the most recent year for which state data are available.

An estimated 60% of blacks and Hispanics in state prisons were serving a sentence for a violent offense, compared to 48% of whites. At the end of fiscal year 2017, nearly half of all federal prisoners were serving a sentence for drug trafficking.

Privately operated prison facilities held 121,400 prisoners, or 8% of all state and federal prisoners, at year-end 2017. Inmates in these facilities were under the jurisdiction of 27 states and the Bureau of Prisons. The number of federal prisoners held in private facilities decreased by 6,600 from 2016 to 2017 (down 19%).

In 2017, almost two-thirds (482,000) of jail inmates were unconvicted, awaiting court action on a charge, while the rest (263,200) were convicted and either serving a sentence or awaiting sentencing.

The demographic characteristics of persons incarcerated in jails shifted from 2005 to 2017. During this period, the percentage of the jail population that was white increased from 44% to 50%, while the percentage that was black decreased from 39% to 34%. Hispanics accounted for 15% of all jail inmates in 2017, the same as in 2005. Asians accounted for less than 1% of jail inmates in both years. In 2017, the jail incarceration rate for blacks was more than 3 times the rate for whites and Hispanics, and more than 20 times the rate for Asians.

Jails reported 10.6 million admissions in 2017, which represented no change from 2016 but a 19% decline from 13.1 million in 2007. The overall weekly inmate turnover rate was 54% in 2017, while the estimated average time spent in jail before release was 26 days.

At midyear 2017, one in five jails were operating at or above 100% of their rated capacity, which is the number of beds or inmates that a rating official has assigned to a facility. The total rated capacity of county and city jails was 915,100 beds at midyear 2017. An estimated 81% of jail beds were occupied in 2017, down from 95% in 2005.


Reprinted with permission from https://www.crimeinamerica.net.

Contact us at crimeinamerica@gmail.com or for media on deadline, use leonardsipes@gmail.com.

Leonard A. Sipes, Jr has thirty-five years of experience supervising public affairs for national and state criminal justice agencies. He is the Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse and the Former Director of Information Management for the National Crime Prevention Council. He has a Post Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and is the author of the book "Success With the Media". He can be reached via email at leonardsipes@gmail.com.


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