BJS Report: U.S. Prison Population Declined in 2020

A recent BJS report presents statistics on prisoners being held in state and federal prisons in the United States. The key points are as follows:

A total of 1,215,800 people were imprisoned in state and federal prisons in 2020

Majority (97%) were sentenced to more than one year
The majority (93%) of offenders were male

The majority of state prisoners were serving time for violent offenses

58% of prisoners had been sentenced for violent offenses
14% each for rape/sexual assault, aggravated assault, and simple assault
13% for murder or negligent manslaughters

In 35 states, at least half of prisoners were serving time for a violent offense
In four states (Alaska, California, Maryland, and Massachusetts) at least two-thirds of state prisoners were sentenced for a violent crime

Federal prisoners were more likely to be serving time for drug offenses relative to state prisoners

Federal offenders had much smaller percentages of violent offenders (8%) than state prisoners (58%)
Federal prisoners had higher percentages of drug offenders (47%) when compared with state prisoners (approximately 10% or less)

The number of people held in state and federal prisons is declining

The number of people in prison declined 15% from 2019 to 2020 (from 1,430,200 to 1,215,800)
Jurisdictions found declines ranging from -7% to -31%
Only Alaska showed an increase (+2%) in the prison population

Prison populations of California, Texas, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons accounted for a third of the total decrease (a total of about 67,000 prisoners)

Largest declines occurred in California (-24 prisoners) and Pennsylvania (-14 prisoners)
Decrease in California is likely due to the large population size
Nine states had declines of at least 20%, including New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, North Dakota, Maine, New York, Hawaii, California, and Vermont

Factors possibly influencing the decline from 2019 to 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic caused many courts released people on bail for certain crimes that were previously not eligible for bail
Other coinciding reforms such as general bail reform and reforms eliminating sentence enhancements for certain crimes

Takeaways

The use of prisons in the United States declined from 2019 to 2020
While California led this decline, it is likely due to their large population size relative to other states
State prisoners were more likely to be serving time for a violent offense while federal offenders were more likely to be serving time for drug-related offense
The decrease in incarceration from 2019 to 2020 also coincides with increases in violent crime rates, which makes one wonder whether the decline in the prison population is having a negative impact on public safety

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