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The U.S.’ Mass Incarceration Rate Is the Lowest It’s Been in Almost Two Decades

American prisons are getting a little less crowded. Do we have Obama to thank for that?

By Jared Keller


(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In 2015, America’s mass incarceration rate declined to its lowest level in nearly two decades, according to a recent report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The number of people locked up in local, state, and federal prisons across the country dropped to 670 inmates for every 100,000 residents (down from 760 inmates in 2007), or an estimated 6,741,400 people.

The 1.7 percent decline in the United States’ prison population isn’t some marginal decrease; it marks the largest annual decline since 2010, and the seventh straight year of contraction since 2008. As the Washington Postnotes, this trend makes President Barack Obama the first president ”to leave the office with a smaller federal prison system than he started with” in nearly 40 years. Believe it or not, the U.S. prison-industrial complex seems to be ever-so-slightly collapsing in on itself.

Given the time frame of the decline, it might be easy to chalk this up to the Obama administration’s approach to mass incarceration. In his 2008 campaign, Obama decriedmandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders as being responsible for the school-to-prison pipeline that has plagued African-American communities. Since then, as the nation’s focus turned to the shooting deaths of unarmed African Americans, Obama’s criticisms have sharpened into a devotion to “unmasking racial discrimination,” as the Postput it last April. “Mass incarceration makes our country worse off,” Obama declared in a 2015 speech, “and we need to do something about it.”

And to be sure, Obama certainly has done something about it: pardoning and commuting more sentences than any president since Lyndon Johnson as of December, mostly for non-violent drug offenses; ending the use of private prisons for federal inmates; and creating a presidential commission on mass incarceration in the aftermath of unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.

But the federal government, despite its role in shaping norms around crime and punishment, only really incarcerates 189,450 Americans, a small portion (12.7 percent) of the more than 2.3 million currently behind bars (although most federal inmates are behind bars for non-violent drug convictions, hence the disproportionate, if not unjustified, focus of the media on federal policy).

In other words, the policies governing American criminal justice emanate from the local state house, not the White House. Indeed, Stanford University’s Keith Humphreyspointed out in July that, while Congress can’t even manage to pass a criminal justice reform bill with bipartisan support, mass incarceration has mostly remained the purview of 50 state governments.

While Obama’s push knocked out a 6.6 percent decrease on the federal level between 2014 and 2015, state and local prison populations together declined at comparable rates thanks to successive years of prisoner reductions in 24 states. As the Brennan Center for Justice notes, the state prison population began to decline in 2008, while the federal population grew until 2013.

Part of this decline is partially thanks to an overall drop in crime. As I wrote in October, both the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting program and the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey (the two core statistical programs administered by the Department of Justice) reveal that the rates of murder, robbery, sexual assault, and arson in the U.S. have all declined sharply since 1993. Indeed, the Post observes that violent crimes declined steadily after a brief spike in the mid-2000s, according to the FBI database.

But despite the Donald Trump-infused clamoring for more stringent “law and order” policing, the prison population didn’t decline because local cops in riot gear scared off a few looters: It’s the states that decreased their prison populations that also saw a major decline in violent crime, according to Pew Charitable Trusts. A December Brennan Center report on those Americans “unnecessarily incarcerated” with “little public safety rationale” observed the same trend.

“Over the last decade, 27 states have reduced both imprisonment and crime together,” the authors wrote. “From 1999 to 2012, New Jersey and New York reduced their prison populations by about 30 percent, while crime fell faster than it did nationally.” By contrast, the Chicago police — who routinely disregard the civil rights of taxpayers, according to the Department of Justice — face an increasingly violent city.

With the bulk of the criminal justice reforms emerging at the state level, it’s likely this trend will continue despite whatever ambitions the incoming administration might have. And that means whatever progress Obama made toward lessening the prison-industrial complex’s grip over American society, Trump will likely find himself unable to reverse — for now.