Aug 16, 2021 - Politics & Policy

U.S. incarceration rate drops to lowest in 26 years

Photo of a person holding a sign that says "Close prisons, build community"
Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

The U.S. incarceration rate in 2019 dropped to its lowest since 1995, according to new data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Why it matters: Mass incarceration has gained prominence as a criminal and racial justice issue in recent years, with activists and lawmakers calling it a "stain on our democracy." Black people are vastly overrepresented in U.S. prisons.

The big picture: The dip reflects a decline in violent and property crimes in recent decades, as well as a decrease in the nationwide arrest rate, per Pew Research Center.

  • The United States' number of prison and jail inmates itself also dropped to an estimated 2,086,600 at the end of 2019, the fewest since 2003.
  • It's worth noting the U.S. incarceration rate fell by over 10% in the past decade, in part due to city- and state-level measures aimed at combating mass incarceration, Axios' Stef Kight writes.

What they're saying: "Changes in criminal laws, as well as prosecution and judicial sentencing patterns, also likely play a role in the declining incarceration rate and number of people behind bars," according to Pew's John Gramlich, who pointed to a Trump-era law that reduced sentences and secured earlier release dates for federal offenders.

Yes, but: Even with the downward trend, the U.S. still has the highest incarceration rate in the world, the World Prison Brief reports.

The big picture: Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd have renewed attention on racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

  • Black adults are 5.9 times as likely to be incarcerated than white adults, while Hispanics are 3.1 times as likely, noted The Sentencing Project, a decarceration research and advocacy group, in a 2018 report to the UN.

What to watch: Statistics for 2020 are slated for release later this year, but news reports suggest that the decline likely continued.

Go deeper: Race and criminal justice in America

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a link to the Pew Research Center's analysis of the data.

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