(Chicago) - The United States continues incarcerating more people (and more people per capita) than any other country in the world, even while the past several years have shown modest decreases in the country’s prison population. If decarceration continues at this pace, it will take 72 years—until 2091—to cut the U.S. prison population in half, according to a new report.
Using data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, The Sentencing Project analyzed changes in state and federal prison populations. From 1972 to 2009, the country’s total prison population swelled by nearly 700 percent. From 2009 to 2017 (the most recent year for which national data are available), the total prison population declined by 7 percent. Even with that decline, 1.4 million people were imprisoned in the United States at the end of 2017—a figure that did not include the more than 700,000 adults held in local jails.
While 39 states and the federal government had reduced their prison populations by 2017, changes in incarceration varied significantly across states. For example, five states reduced their prison populations by over 30 percent since reaching their peak prison population levels, while 14 states had reductions of less than 5 percent. Additionally, eleven states had their highest ever prison populations in 2017.
Since its peak in 2012, Illinois had decreased its prison population by 16 percent at the end of 2017.
The reductions in prison populations are the result of changes in policies and practices designed to reduce prison admissions and lengths of stay, according to the report. While these reductions are encouraging, the report warns that if the same decarceration rate continues, averaging just one percent annually, it will take 72 years—until 2091—to cut the U.S. prison population in half.
“This report highlights how critical it is to not only continue criminal justice reforms, but to expedite them,” said TASC Director of Policy Laura Brookes. “These kinds of reforms include, but are not limited to, pre-arrest deflection, pretrial and prosecutor-led diversion programs, alternatives to incarceration, sentencing reform, reentry support, and preserving and restoring the rights of people who have had justice system contact.”
In order to expedite the end of mass incarceration, the report recommends intensifying criminal justice reforms related to non-violent drug offenses, as well as enacting meaningful sentencing reforms for crimes that are classified as violent.
“The overall impact of the reforms that they've implemented has been so modest,” said report author Nazgol Ghandnoosh, speaking to ABC News. “This pace of decarceration can't possibly undo the pace at which we created mass incarceration in the 40-year period before that,” she said.