For three years running, America’s prison population has been declining after multiple decades of increase. There’s also a decrease in the number of Americans jailed for property, drug and immigration offenses, while there is an increase in those imprisoned for violent offenses.
The findings are based on data released on Wednesday by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The BJS report titled Prisoners in 2016 found out that state and federal incarceration levels had dropped three years in a row, spanning 2014-2016. The decline reverses decades of near-continuous growth.
In the three year period of decline, BJS says federal prisons accounted for about 12 percent of overall incarceration, while state prisons were responsible for the other 88 percent.
Within states, fewer people were jailed for drug and property offenses at the end of 2015 compared to the end of 2013. Around 11,000 fewer people were held for drug charges, including nearly 3,000 for drug possession and 8,000 for other drug charges, including drug trafficking. There are also 22,000 fewer people held for property charges.
Violent crimes, on the other hand, increased between the end of 2013 and 2015. Some 12,000 more people were imprisoned for murder at the end of 2015 compared to 2013. Incarceration for assault and non-weapons, non-DUI public order charges also increased. While on the federal level, violent crimes remained essentially stable between September 2014 and September 2016.
There’s also a large drop in federal incarceration due to a decrease in people going to jail for drug offenses. It is also worth noting, according to BJS, that the drug charges were “more than 99 percent” for drug trafficking offenses.
Public order crimes including immigration and weapons offenses at the federal level also decreased between 2014 to 2016. Around 4,000 fewer people were held for immigration charges and roughly 2,000 fewer for weapons charges.
BJS did not explain what social or political forces drove the shifts in numbers. Some factors are worth considering, however. For one, the increase in murder incarceration was likely driven by the increase in violent crime in 38 out of 50 states from the a2014-2016 period. Fighting violent crime’s rise has been a top priority of the Department of Justice under Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Drop in federal drug trafficking incarceration may be affected by the decision of the past Obama administration in 2013 not to prosecute marijuana-related offenses in states where the said drug has been legalized. That is also something Sessions reversed.
It remains unclear what causes the slight decrease in immigration charges.