U.S. Prison Population Continues Slow Decline; Wisconsin’s Inches Up

Ringing in the new year, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics recently released its data on prisoners in the United States in 2015. After rising consistently for about four decades, the U.S. prison population (state and federal combined) peaked at a little over 1.6 million in 2009. Since then, the population has declined steadily, but very slowly. For 2015, the total was a little over 1.5 million, or about 35,000 less than 2014. The continued reductions are encouraging, but must be kept in perspective: the population remains many times above its historic norms. The current rate of 458 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents is over four times greater than the long-term rate of about 100 per 100,000 from before the imprisonment boom. We are still very much in the era of mass incarceration.

The Wisconsin numbers continue to be lower than the national norms, but are moving in the opposite direction. At yearend 2015, Wisconsin’s prison population numbered 22,975, up 1.7 percent from 2014. This amounts to 377 prisoners per 100,000. By comparison, Minnesota’s rate was just 196 per 100,000.

Here are a few additional observations:

 

National reductions were driven primarily by the federal system, in which the prison population declined by nearly seven percent in 2015. These federal reductions are a relatively new development. When the national prison population began to fall after 2009, California was initially the main driver. The federal prison population actually continued to grow throughout President Obama’s first term. However, Obama’s efforts to reduce sentences for nonviolent drug offenders started to bear fruit in his second term. Although the new BJS report only covers through 2015, next year’s report will show continued reductions through the end of Obama’s time in office. The federal Bureau of Prisons website shows a current population (January 2017) of 189,333, which is about four percent lower than a year ago. However, the federal system remains considerably larger than the two largest state systems (Texas and California), both of which were bigger than the federal system through most of the 1990s.

As impressive as the federal drop was in 2015, the biggest losers (in percentage terms) were these states:

  • Vermont (-11.6%)
  • Alaska (-7.9%)
  • Utah (-7.7%)
  • Massachusetts (-7.4%)

I don’t know what drove the reductions in these states, but it is important to note that all started with relatively small prison populations. Even Massachusetts, with the largest, began 2015 with a prison population less than half the size of Wisconsin’s. The small baselines mean that the drops in Vermont et al. had little discernible impact on the national imprisonment rate. Again, from the national perspective, the real story is that of the federal system.

Imprisonment trends continue to vary quite a bit from state to state. Although most states reduced their prison populations in 2015, Wisconsin was hardly alone in going the other way. The biggest gainers were:

  • North Dakota (4.5%)
  • Nevada (4.3%)
  • West Virginia (3.2%)
  • Oklahoma (3.2%)

Note again that these are smaller states that began with relatively low prison populations–small baselines can make modest changes appear more significant in percentage terms than they really are in.

Overall, more than 560,000 inmates entered state prisons in 2015. Of these, about sixty-nine percent represented new court commitments, while twenty-nine percent were revocations from post-prison supervision. In Wisconsin, a somewhat higher percentage of prison admissions (thirty-four percent) came from such revocations. (The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has had some good coverage of the problem of revocations for technical violations in Wisconsin. The issue has also been a recent focus of advocacy by the faith-based group WISDOM.)

Nationally, a little over half of sentenced state prisoners are serving time for violent offenses. Drug offenders constitute about sixteen percent of state prison populations. The federal system looks dramatically different in this regard, with about fifty percent of inmates serving time for drug offenses and only seven percent for violent. This is why President Obama’s initiatives targeting nonviolent drug offenders have been able to have such a large effect. In most states, though, similar initiatives are unlikely to work as well, simply because there are relatively few nonviolent drug offenders to move out of prison. This is one of the key points in my forthcoming book, The Failure of Sentencing Reform (out in March).