U.S. Corrections Population Hit 19-Year Low in 2018

About 6,410,000 persons were in U.S. prisons or jails, or were on probation and parole in 2018—a 19-year low in the number of persons under the supervision of adult correctional systems around the nation, says the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) in a new report.

The correctional population peaked at 7,339,600 in 2007 and has declined every year since, BJS says.

Between 2017 and 2018, the total fell by 2.1 percent, and in the decade between 2008 and 2018, it went down 12.3 percent.

In total, by the end of 2018, about one in 40 adult U.S. residents were under some form of correctional supervision, down from one in 32 a decade earlier.

In that year, 2,510 out of 100,000 adult U.S. residents were under the supervision of adult correctional systems, a 26-year low in the adult correctional supervision rate.

The 2018 data, which were released Thursday, are the latest available, as it takes time for BJS to collect them from each state and analyze them.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the incarceration total has dropped in many states as infections started to spread around the nation in March, hitting prisons and jails particularly hard.

Between March and June, more than 100,000 inmates were released from state and federal prisons, a decrease of eight percent, found an analysis by the Marshall Project and the Associated Press.

After an initial spate of releases, reports of policy changes are becoming less frequent during the pandemic, the advocacy group Prison Policy Initiative reports.

The initiative noted that Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear committed the prison sentences of 646 people this week.

It is not clear yet whether the probation and parole numbers have dropped nationally during the pandemic.

The 2.1 percent correctional population decrease between 2017 and 2018 was due to a combination of the 2.4 percent decline in people supervised in the community and a 1.4 percent decline in the incarcerated population, BJS said.

Despite the continued decreases, as of year end 2018, about 2,123,100 persons were either in state or federal prisons or in local jails, making the U.S. still the world’s incarceration capital.

Of those behind bars in 2018, some 1,465,200 were in federal and state prisons and 738,400 in local jails.

Measured against the overall population, about 1,000 adults were in prison or jail per 100,000 adult U.S. residents in 2008, a figure that dropped to 830 by 2018.

In the 2008-2018 decade, the decrease in the probation population was responsible for 81 percent of the total decline in the correctional population, BJS says, noting that probationers male up the largest portion of the total population under  correctional supervision.

The parole population was the only category to increase during the decade, rising by 51,900.

Typically, defendants are placed on probation by courts in lieu of imprisonment, while parolees are those who remain under supervision after their release from custody.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.