The Prison Population is Down

After more than thirty years of constant increase, prison populations have leveled off and in the last few years have begun to decline (pdf). It’s a momentous change and Keith Humphreys argues that the story has been under-reported because few people want to play up the good news

(1) Most of the state, local and federal officials who have helped reduce incarceration are scared to publicly take credit for it. In general, reducing incarceration is a good thing, but probability dictates that in particular cases it will be a horrible thing. At least a few of the roughly 100,000 fewer people under correctional supervision in 2011 versus 2010 for example will do something extremely violent and high-profile, and no politician wants to risk being in a story headlined “Convict released by thug-loving governor murders nun”.

Hat tip: Matt Yglesias.


This is almost entirely because of budget problems at the state level.

You are right. Digging deeper into that report reveals that the Federal System actually has 4% more prisoners in 2011 than 2010.

I am sure that we are letting the right ones out.

You mean the non-violent, mainly drug crime offenders?

Well, we have had a Democrat President for 4 years, after all. It simply has to be that immigration deportations and marijuana crackdowns are enjoying a respite. I believe in Harvey Dent.

Just don't mention Huckabee. Just don't mention Huckabee. Just don't mention Huckabee.

According to this article, it's almost entirely due to the elimination of lead from gasolie.

That's an interesting piece of data and I'm surprised this is the first I've heard of it. Apparently the high water mark was 2007, so the US correctional population has been declining for 5 years (since the recession started?) and I've never seen a report that points that out.

Also, I'd like to see the prison population chart. Is it the same trend? Or has the length of parole supervision been decreasing since the recession started? In which case this chart is an artifact of shorter parole periods.

The Prison Population is Down

Hardly. I quote from the report:

"The majority (83%) of the decline in the correctional population during the year was attributed to the decrease in the probation population (down 81,800 offenders)."

Well, if this source is to be trusted -

'The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world—more even than China or Russia. In fact, more people are in prisons in the United States than in all other developed countries combined. Professor Daniel J. D’Amico explains that as of 2010 over 1.6 million people were serving jail sentences in America.'

then a decline of over something like .5% of the entire world's prison population is nothing to sneeze at. (Assuming that the American decline in true prison population was roughly 20,000 inmates.)

But wait, that wasn't how the post was framed, was it?

Ooops - forgot the 'developed' in front of 'world's prison population'

Still, pretty impressive achievement on the developed world's part, isn't it?

+1 to Rahul and Prior,

If you look at the report, you will see federal population increased, and state prison populations decreased, with the state decrease being attributed to budget cuts:

You can find it here:

December 17, 2012 NCJ 239808

Presents data on prisoners under the jurisdiction of federal and state correctional authorities on December 31, 2011, collected from the National Prisoner Statistics series. The report compares changes in the prison population during 2011 to changes from yearend 2000 through yearend 2010. It explores factors leading to the second straight year of decline in the state prison population, as well as continued growth in the federal prison population. Findings cover data on decreasing admissions and releases in state prisons; imprisonment rates for prisoners sentenced to more than one year, by jurisdiction, age, race, Hispanic origin, sex, and offense distributions of prisoners; and the contribution of California’s new Public Safety Realignment policy on the national state prison population.


During 2011, the number of prisoners under the jurisdiction of state and federal correctional authorities declined by 0.9%, from 1,613,803 to 1,598,780.
The number of sentenced prisoners under the jurisdiction of the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 2011 increased by 6,409 inmates (up 3.4%) from 2010.
During 2011, the number of releases from state and federal prisons (688,384) exceeded the number of admissions (668,800)."

It would be interesting to decompose this a bit more: characteristics of releases, types of crimes for incarceration and release, fiscal condition of the state and local government, etc.

Is incarceration state income elastic? Do states which invest more in education invest less in incarceration, and what is the lagged effect of supporting education over incarceration?

What's left out of the discussion so far is that nearly all of the reduction was driven by prison 'realignment' in California. This was prompted by the Plata v. Brown Supreme Court case (which was concerned with woefully inadequate health care in California prisons) rather than direct fiscal pressures.

So, is the chart roughly right or not in that the yoy roc is down close to zero after steadily declining for 30 years?

And what do the Kochs have to do with it!!!?

I'm not saying they are, or or aren't, but the fact that they are, and IT IS, begs the question, and the silence is deafening. It either is and they want it that way, or it isn't and they want us to believe it is. Or not, just to cover their tracks. Don't be naive.

Drug posession is being treated differently by cops on the beat and the judicial system.

Probation enrollment going down is directly related to that. But that won't affect prison dwellers.

A few years ago the Denver police were basically directed via a citizen's initiative to stop making arrests for marijuana possession. Not meaningful in terms of the overall stats but one hopes this is the start of a trend.

One interesting trend in that report is that Private Contractor Imprisonment went up by 18% last year( Federal ).

Prison outsourcing is booming.

I think demographics might have something to do with this as well. There are fewer young people in the population.

Dan, you're more correct than you think. If you look at the graph you'll see that circa 1993 there was a precipitous drop in the prison population. Now ask yourself, "What happened 20 years before that?" Does Roe v Wade ring a bell? See link.

Yeah, who cares about crime rates?

As long as fewer people are in prison, everything must be getting better.

Welcome to Relevant Statistics In The Age of Obama.

Yeah, what about crime rates? Aren't both violent and property crimes at about the lowest since the early '70's?

What crime rate boom are you talking about?

They seem to follow fiscal fortunes. There's a lesson in there somewhere.

Sounds like a very solid plan to me dude. Wow.

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