Department of Justice reports 15% drop in prison population in 2020

WASHINGTON, D.C.  –  Department of Justice figures for year-end 2020 reveal the following: By year-end 2020, the US prison population declined by 24% since reaching its peak level in 2009. In the federal system, the decline was 28% since the peak year (2011). Still, the United States remains the world leader in its rate of incarceration, locking up its citizens at far higher rates than other industrialized nations.
States have shown they can prioritize decarceration while advancing public safety. Texas, for example, has reduced its prison population by 30,000 people between 2010 and 2020 while reducing property crime rates and maintaining the same rate of violent crime. Florida reduced its prison population by over 20,000 people during this period and reduced violent crime by 29% and property crime by 50%. 

New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York reduced their prison populations by over 50% since reaching their peak levels. They continue to struggle with lifetime imprisonment, racial disparity, and diminished voting rights.

Some states have reversed 2020 declines by increasing prison populations in 2021. For example, the federal prison population added over 5,000 people in 2021 — a 3% increase. California’s prison population grew by 5% in 2021, and prison admissions increased in Florida. 

Black Americans are five times as likely to be incarcerated as white Americans. Latinx people are imprisoned at 2.4 times the rate of non-Latinx whites.

The total year-end count of children under 18 sentenced to serve their time in adult prisons was 352, the lowest number since 1980. This reflects a 46% decline in 2020 alone.

Statement of Ashley Nellis, senior research analyst of The Sentencing Project: “The COVID-19 pandemic drove the number of imprisoned people down substantially in 2020, reflecting a 15% drop over the course of the year. As states and the federal government emerge from the worst stage of the pandemic to date, these declines should provide momentum to accelerate decarceration efforts. While the 2020 reductions are substantial, they were insufficient against the threat that the pandemic posed to incarcerated individuals. What is more, preliminary 2021 data reveal some states reversed course and increased their prison populations. In order to achieve significant reductions, policymakers must pass reforms that scale back excessive sentencing for all offenses, a key factor which distinguishes the U.S. from other nations.”

The Sentencing Project promotes effective and humane responses to crime that minimize imprisonment and criminalization of youth and adults by promoting racial, ethnic, economic, and gender justice.

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