Mass Incarceration: The Long Unwind

The latest data on imprisonment shows that the U.S. continues to outpace any other country in rate of incarceration. However, after a more than three decade run of rising incarceration, the past few years have witnessed a reversal of the trend, which I expect to continue for reasons that I detail in my latest piece at Washington Post’s Wonkblog.

Let’s break down the newest numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Bad news first: After dropping for several years, the number of state prisoners increased by 6,300 inmates in 2013. This both surprised and disappointed me because of all the reforms going on around the country, but there it is. The better news is that the federal prison system, which had been stubbornly resisting the general U.S. trend towards less incarceration, finally reduced its population. The system held 1,900 fewer inmates in 2013 than 2012, the first drop in the raw number since 1980 (!).

Numbers of inmates are not interpretable by themselves because the size of our national population is always changing. For example we have many more people in prison today than we did 30 years ago not only because of correctional policy decisions, but also because we have many more people, period. The incarceration rate takes account of population growth, and shows a drop for 2013, from 480 to 478 per 100,000. This is the fifth straight year of falling incarceration, which hasn’t happened since the early 1970s. Our rate is now back where it was in the early aughties.

The U.S. established mass incarceration over decades, and it will not be unmade overnight. Moving in the right direction for five straight years is splendid, but I believe we could pick up the pace while still protecting the public. My hope is that the many sentencing reforms passed in states in the past couple years have not yet had time to make as much impact as they will in the future; President Obama and AG Holder’s recent efforts at the federal level could well be in the same boat. Like the Dalai Lama, I choose to be optimistic because I cannot think of a better alternative.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.