Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

The Prison Population Is Actually Falling in the U.S.

The incarceration rate in the U.S. peaked in 2007 and has been tapering off ever since.

The number of sentenced prisoners in the U.S. has been falling (ever so slightly) in recent years.

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics

Nationwide, incarceration rates of sentenced prisoners peaked in 2007 and have been tapering off in the years since, Bureau of Justice Statistics data show. Between 2009 and 2014, state prison populations fell 8 percent and federal prison rates declined 2 percent. Some states in particular have seen significant declines. For example, the population of state and federal prisons within California fell from 342 per 100,000 state residents in 2007 to 257 in 2014. The incarceration rate in New Jersey fell from 311 to 241 over the same period.

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics

More flexible sentencing, more post-release support to avoid recidivism, and alternatives to incarceration are among the drivers of the decline, according to a study by the Urban Institute. The Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a partnership between the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance and The Pew Charitable Trusts, have helped participating states investigate why so many people are sentenced to prison and brainstorm how incarceration rates can be reduced.

Even with the drop in incarcerations, the U.S. still has the second most prisoners per capita in the world. It is surpassed by only Seychelles, an East African archipelago of 115 islands. Among OECD countries, the U.S. puts the most citizens behind bars by far.

Note: Data is the latest available as of October 2015.
Note: Data is the latest available as of October 2015.
Source: Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR), Bloomberg

According to data from Institute for Criminal Policy Research — which includes both sentenced and pre-trial detainees, making the totals slightly higher than in the previous charts — the U.S. has 698 prisoners for every 100,000 people. That makes the U.S. incarceration rate more that double that of Israel, which ranks second among members of the OECD. Iceland has the lowest OECD incarceration rate, at 45 prisoners per 100,000 people, followed by Japan, Sweden, Finland and Denmark.

This article originally ran as an interactive StoryChart in Bloomberg Brief's Municipal Market newsletter.

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