The rate of incarceration in the United States in 2019 fell to its lowest levels since 1995, though it’s still among the highest rates of imprisonment in the world, a Pew Research Center review of new government data found Monday.
At the end of 2019, the U.S. had 810 people incarcerated in jails or prisons for every 100,000 people age 18 and up, amounting to 2.1 million people behind bars, the data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows.
The last time that figure was that low was in 1995. After peaking between 2006 and 2008 at 1,000 incarcerated people per 100,000 people, that rate has dropped each year since.
The data doesn’t account for incarcerated youth. On any given day, there are about 60,000 minors imprisoned in the U.S., the American Civil Liberties Union reports. In some states, the youth incarceration rate is more than 400 per 100,000 people.
A number of factors may explain the decline, the Pew Research Center found. Violent and property crime rates have largely fallen in recent decades, as have arrests, and changes in laws and prosecution procedures have led to shorter sentences.
Despite the steady drop in incarcerated people, the Pew analysis found, the U.S. still has a higher rate of imprisonment than any other country in the world that provides such data, underscoring how vastly different the American justice system still is from that of most of the world.
President Joe Biden has vowed to keep whittling down the U.S. prison population, which is disproportionately people of color, and is “exploring multiple avenues to provide relief to certain nonviolent drug offenders, including through the use of his clemency power,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week.
The United States’ decadeslong, so-called war on drugs ― which has been largely aimed at Black and brown Americans ― helped the prison population boom from 1980 onward. Among all the incarcerated people in the U.S., an Associated Press analysis found last month, 1 in 5 have a drug offense listed as their most serious crime.
Biden’s administration came under fire last month for its decision to send thousands of federal inmates back to prison after releasing them to home confinement as a pandemic safety measure. Correctional facilities have been among the worst hotbeds for COVID-19 spread throughout the pandemic.
Though it’s clear the U.S. prison population is high, the lack of transparency from some countries, China in particular, makes it hard to compare it with the entire world.
“You might understandably wonder what the incarceration picture looks like in China,” Pew Research Center editor John Gramlich wrote. “The answer is: We don’t really know. In this analysis, China’s stats exclude potentially hundreds of thousands of people in ‘administration detention,’ PLUS the Uyghurs,” he said, referring to data from the World Prison Brief.
The Uyghurs, sometimes spelled Uighurs, are a Muslim minority group in China. An estimated 1 million of them have been imprisoned in at least 85 camps in Northwest China since 2017.
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