Prison Prison Policy prison reform

At the Current Rate, Cutting the U.S. Prison Population by 50 Percent Would Take 72 Years, Report Says

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

From 1972, the nation’s prison population exploded, growing 700 percent until it peaked in 2009. Since that peak, the number of people locked up in state and federal prisons has dropped just 7.3 percent through sentencing reforms and other criminal justice system changes. At the same time, crime rates have been hovering near historic lows.

By 2017, 39 states and the feds had reduced the number of people locked in prison cells from the height of mass incarceration. Alaska, New Jersey, Vermont, Connecticut, and New York led the pack, with reductions that topped 30 percent. California and Rhode Island were the next highest, with 25 percent each.

In a total of 14 states, including Texas (the state with the largest prison population), imprisonment rates dropped by less than 5 percent from their individual peak years. Eleven more states failed entirely to reduce overall imprisonment, despite many of those states experiencing significantly reduced crime rates. The prison population in one state, Arkansas, ballooned by 23 percent between 2012 and 2017.

At the rate that states are currently emptying prisons, it would take the U.S. more than 70 years — until 2091 — to cut the prison population in half, according to a new analysis by The Sentencing Project’s Senior Research Analyst Nazgol Ghandnoosh.

At the end of 2016, there were approximately 1.5 million people in state and federal prisons. When jails are included, the population total jumps to more than 2.2 million.

“Clearly, waiting seven decades to substantively alter a
system that is out of step with the world and is racially biased is unacceptable,” Ghandnoosh writes.

Cutting the prison population by 50 percent, an ambitious target (one often mentioned by advocates and for a country with the world’s largest prison population and highest rate of incarceration, would still leave us with the second largest prison population in the world — after China — despite making up less than 5 percent of the more than 7 billion people in the world.

Achieving the 50 percent goal would require aggressive reforms — even beyond drastically reducing the number of people behind bars for drug crimes — according to Ghandnoosh.

“Expediting the end of mass incarceration,” he says in his report, “will require accelerating the end of the Drug War and scaling back sentences for all crimes, including violent offenses for which half of people in prison are serving time.”

The number of people in prison for violent crimes decreased by just 2 percent between the nation’s height of imprisonment in 2009 and 2016, according to the report.

“The reluctance to scale back excessive sentences for this population,” writes Ghandnoosh, “is at odds with evidence that long sentences incapacitate older people who pose little public safety threat, produce limited deterrent effect since they do not increase the likelihood of arrest, and detract from more effective investments in public safety.”


  • “Scaling back sentences for all crimes, including violent offenses” remember the not-so-old lie that they just wanted to get the nonviolent drug users out of jail? It appears they had something else in mind the whole time. Looks like they’re going with the cf style religious argument that if people of color are over represented it proves the system is therefore racist. Just for things like prisons though, unless cf wants to explain how the NBA is obviously racist as blacks are grossly overrepresented, while mezo Peruvians are obviously the victim of systemic basketball racism.

  • Of course no correlation between record low crime rates and record number of career crooks behind bars. Incarceration is all about incapacitation, and no one is arguing about ending mass incarceration and the failed war on drugs. Let’s keep our jails and prisons for those who pose a physical threat to society.

  • Madame Dong, are you an advisor to our Orange Commander in Chief? You certainly can be with the simpleton analysis you bring to most discussions. Today, the NBA will take whomever can play basketball the best, black, white, Chinese, Spanish, African, etc. Their search is now global. There was a time when blacks need not apply, as in the case of baseball and many other organized sports. There are also social forces at play, which is why you tend to get folks form areas where there are not many options, such as the inner city. Or in baseball, the Dominican Republic. For a while you didn’t welcome blacks, but you had many Jews. There was a time where there were quite a number of Jews in the inner city, so there were Jewish basketball player, Jewish gangster, Jewish laborers. No more, Jews had a prerequisite for acceptance, among other things – White skin. Jews moved on and now they allow blacks to play ball, and they do.

    With crime, we make the laws. And, we decide how harshly we punish. Spoiler alert, some target blacks and some punish blacks more harshly. And, then we have to who decide who has committed a crime, or actually the porcine patrol does. And, guess who they stop more often, ALL THINGS EQUAL. If we follow your logic, blacks are more criminally incline. The literature, however, is fairly clear, especially around drugs, a major reason for mass incarceration. Listen carefully Madame Dong, blacks and whites use drugs at the same rates, on average, but Blacks pay a steeper price – more likely to get arrested, more likely to be prosecuted, more likely to received harsher sentences, more likely to receive worse plea deals, ALL THINGS EQUAL.

    • Oh the mental gymnastics cf our little social justice warrior has to inflict upon herself to explain away the obvious. I understand it’s difficult being confronted with the obvious contradictions in your faith (e.g. they’re may be reasons for a race being over represented in something that wasn’t caused by racism) but what’s with the rant about Jews? Of course considering the current status of Jews in our society ,they make a pretty poor example of racist white America holding down oppressed people forever. Naturally cf attributes Jewish success with their white skin (a fundamental article of her faith)
      Cf then wraps it up with the usual black/white drug incarceration rate theme. Which is kinda non sequitur as the original comment was about letting violent criminals out of jail, you know ALL THINGS (being) EQUAL.

    • ad ho·mi·nem
      /ˌad ˈhämənəm/
      (of an argument or reaction) directed against a person rather than the position they are maintaining.

      ad hominem attack: unbecoming and beneath whoever cf is.

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