US incarceration rate drops to lowest level in decades

Data reviewed by Pew Research Centre shows drop to 1995 levels of incarceration after reaching peak during Bush administration

Clara Hill
Tuesday 17 August 2021 15:49 BST
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The rate of incarceration in the US fell in 2019 to levels not seen since 1995, according to government data.

The Pew Research Center reviewed Bureau of Justice data to find that there were 810 people per 100,000 in prisons at the end of 2019. This translates to 2.1 million people incarcerated in total.

The rate was at its highest between 2006 and 2008. During this two-year period, the rate of incarcerated people was 1,000 per 100,000. Following this high period, the number dropped every year.

According to the Pew Research Center, the decline can be attributed to reduced levels of violent and property offences and legislative changes that allow for shorter sentencing. Pew cited the 2018 law enacted by President Donald Trump that shortened some federal sentences.

Despite this decrease, the US still claims the highest rate of imprisonment in the world when compared to other countries that share prison data. The study, however, questioned how China accounts for its incarcerated population. According to the World Prison Brief, China has 1.7 million people in prison, but that figure has been disputed.

“China’s total excludes people held in pre-trial detention or ‘administrative detention’ – a group that may number more than 650,000. China’s total also excludes the estimated 1 million Uyghur Muslims who are reportedly being detained in camps in the Xinjiang autonomous region,” wrote Pew’s John Gramlich in the data’s accompanying statement.

President Joe Biden has pledged to reduce the US prison population, which is disproportionately people of colour. Last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that the administration was looking to review some “nonviolent drug offenders” and potentially offer them clemency.

The “war on drugs”, which began in the 1980s, is believed to have significantly contributed to the high levels of incarcerated people in the US. According to the AP, 20 per cent of incarcerated people have a drug charge as their most serious offence.

The federal government’s treatment of incarcerated people throughout the pandemic has sparked criticism. Inmates were sent back to prison following their removal for social distancing purposes. Additionally, prisons have faced massive Covid outbreaks due to the crowded conditions.

These statistics do not gauge levels of youth incarceration. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the youth prison population is believed to stand at roughly 60,000. In some states, youth incarceration rate stands at over 400 per 100,000 people, including in South Dakota and Wyoming.

The Independent reached out to the Pew Research Center for comment.

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