Fewer Americans behind bars?

For the third straight year, fewer Americans were under "correctional supervision"--a catch-all description that includes prisons, jails, probation, and parole--in 2011.  Do these slight changes in the numbers from year to year indicate major shifts in the American way of punishment?

Originally published by Ted Gest in The Crime Report. Be sure to download the PDF of the complete report as well. 

Photo by abardwell, via Flickr

For the third straight year, fewer Americans were under "correctional supervision"--a catch-all description that includes prisons, jails, probation, and parole--in 2011.

That was the major finding of a U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics report released today.

The report will be cheered by those who argue that fewer people should be ensnared in the justice system in an era of lower crime rates.

Nevertheless, some critics believe that the numbers remain far too high: nearly 7 million convicted people under some kind of supervision.

The total means that nearly 3 percent of U.S. adults, or one in 34, were under some form of correctional supervision at the close of December, 2011---the same rate as in 1998.

The rate had been as high as one in 31 Americans in both 2006 and 2007. The most quoted figure usually is jail and prison inmates, which was about 2.24 million in 2011, down slightly from 2010. Many more are on probation (nearly 4 million last year, down slightly from 2010).

The parole numbers went up last year to about 854,000 from nearly 841,000 in 2010.

Critics of the high national incarceration rate contend that the changes are going in the right direction, albeit very slowly. The combined prison and jail numbers have now been falling for four straight years.

The number hit a peak in 2008 with 2,307,500 in both kinds of adult institutions.

A closer look reveals that the number of federal prisoners continues to climb, reading nearly 215,000 at year end 2011 compared with about 207,000 a year earlier.

State prisons housed about 2 percent fewer at the end of last year than in 2010. Private prisons held abut 122,000 of the total of prisoners. There were 735,601 in local jails, a population that is very fluid.

Relating total imprisonment to declining crime totals can be tricky.

Many conservatives say it is justified to have so many Americans under correctional supervision, arguing that the high numbers in the justice system explain in part why crime rates have declined.

Those on the liberal side say that the nation's mass incarceration is far too high and that slight changes in the numbers from year to year do not indicate major shifts in the American way of punishment.

For the full report please click HERE.

 

About the author

Charles Shaw is a writer and activist living in the Bay Area of San Francisco. He is the author of Exile Nation: Drugs, Prisons, Politics and Spirituality, and the Director of The Exile Nation Project. Charles serves as editor for the Dictionary of Ethical Politics and the oD Drug Policy Forum.