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U.S. Incarceration: Still Mass

The shrink-the-prisons movement hasn’t moved the numbers.

New Bureau of Justice Statistics figures out this morning measured a slight decrease – about half of a percent – in the number of adults incarcerated in the United States last year. The decline comes from a drop in inmates of local jails. The number of people in local jails last year fell by almost 2 percent – to 731,200. At the same time, despite a growing national concern with the costs and consequences of mass incarceration, the number in prisons grew a tiny bit, one-third of a percent from the previous year, to 1,574,700.

The increase in the prison population comes entirely from state facilities – reversing a three-year downward trend. The number of inmates in federal prisons actually declined for the first time since 1980.

There are real lives behind these numbers: every percentage point accounts for approximately 22,200 people. But the rate of change is almost negligible. If the nation’s incarcerated adult population continued to decrease at this pace, it would take 215 years – until 2228 – to drop below the number of adults incarcerated in 1985.

Looking at changes over the long term, the number of inmates in jails and prisons is down from 2010, but remains up more than 14 percent from what it was at the turn of the century.

The state with the highest percentage of its population behind bars was Louisiana, which had 14 people in its jails or prisons for every 1,000 residents. Oklahoma, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia were not far behind.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics also produced total numbers of people under supervision of the corrections system, combining the incarcerated with those on probation or parole. Parole saw a slight rise of a little more than 2,000 people. The number of people on probation decreased by 0.8 percent to roughly 3.9 million.

Georgia has, by far, the highest rate of supervision in the country, with seven out of 100 adults on probation or parole, more than triple the national rate.

Altogether, the bureau estimates that 6,899,000 people were either on probation or parole, or in jail or prison. That’s down about 0.6 percent, or 41,500 people, from the year before. While it’s true that last year was the sixth straight year of decline, the rate of decline has slowed.

Tread carefully through these numbers. The report comes with footnotes and a methodology almost as long as the report itself. The Bureau of Justice Statistics assembles these figures from a half-dozen surveys and censuses of federal, state and local agencies. The bureau’s official count of the prison population was also revised this year to include offenders under the jurisdiction of prison agencies, not just those physically held in custody in a correctional facility.

<a href=By the Numbers, The Marshall Project's guide to the latest stats in the world of criminal justice, updated with the latest Bureau of Justice Statistics numbers.">

By the Numbers, The Marshall Project's guide to the latest stats in the world of criminal justice, updated with the latest Bureau of Justice Statistics numbers.

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