Feb 22, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Mapped: U.S. prison population rises for first time in nearly 10 years

Change in state prison populations, 2021 to 2022
Data: Bureau of Justice Statistics; Map: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

The U.S. prison population rose 2.1% between 2021 and 2022, per recent Justice Department data, reversing a longtime downward trend.

Why it matters: The latest findings mark "the first increase in the combined state and federal prison population in almost a decade," a recent DOJ report found.

By the numbers: 1.23 million Americans were in state or federal prison in 2022, per the DOJ's data.

  • That's up from 1.21 million in 2021, but down from 1.57 million in 2012.

Zoom in: Mississippi's (+14.3%), Montana's (+8.8%) and Colorado's (+8.2%) incarcerated populations grew the most between 2021 and 2022.

  • Meanwhile, those of Virginia (-10.5%), Oregon (-5.2%) and California (-3.8%) shrank the most.

Of note: As of Dec. 31, 2022, about 32% of the nationwide prison population was Black — more than double Black Americans' 13.6% share of the overall U.S. population.

Reality check: The U.S. prison population remains extremely high compared to the years before the Nixon-era "war on drugs" and "tough on crime" politics took hold.

Data: Bureau of Justice Statistics; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Bureau of Justice Statistics; Chart: Axios Visuals

How it works: The data is based on the National Prisoner Statistics program, an annual DOJ census of nationwide prison populations, capacity and more.

Between the lines: It's especially notable that the nationwide prison population increased in the late pandemic era, given that many prisons suffered significant and often deadly COVID-19 outbreaks.

  • Flashback: Some nonviolent offenders were moved to home confinement during the height of the pandemic in an effort to curb viral spread in prisons, which affected not just prisoners, but also prison staffers and surrounding communities.

What they're saying: "Despite rhetoric to the contrary, there's a lot of research that shows those kinds of health releases did not have any real negative impact on public safety," David Muhammad, executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, an advocacy group, told NPR.

  • "It is disappointing that we're seeing this increase in populations around the country because we have proven that we can have reductions and be safe."
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