Something Happened in U.S. Prisons That Hasn't Happened in 34 Years


We have fewer federal prisoners now than we did a year ago.

That may not seem like a big deal, but the U.S. hasn't seen a drop in federal inmates since 1980. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the 4,800-inmate decrease Tuesday, bringing the total down to about 215,000 inmates, according to the Associated Press.

Even better? The Bureau of Prisons (yes, that's a thing) is predicting a 2,000-inmate drop next year and a 10,000-inmate drop the year after. 

"This is nothing less than historic," Holder said, per the Associated Press. "To put these numbers in perspective, 10,000 inmates is the rough equivalent of the combined populations of six federal prisons, each filled to capacity."

The background: Having fewer and fewer inmates isn't the result of some breakdown in law and order. The crime rate has actually been dropping for decades, a trend that continued despite the recession.

According to the FBI, violent crime hit a 40-year low in 2010 (and then kept going down). Cities got much safer. New York City, for instance, saw a 71% drop in violent crime from 1993 to 2012. Washington, D.C. saw fewer than 100 murders in 2012, a milestone last reached in 1963.

But violent crime is not always what fills up prisons. Drug offenders have made up a larger and larger share of inmates over the years. Holder and other Obama administration officials have signaled an end to War On Drugs-style prosecution and policing, though, of which we may already be seeing dividends.

Just the federal level: These changes, though, don't always manifest themselves at the state level. And even if they did, some states would have a long way to go before things approach normalcy.

As the Washington Post explains, 17 states have overcapacity prison systems. California is in the worst shape — it's been under court order since 2009 to decrease its prison population but still spends $62,300 a year per inmate. (Compare that with $9,200 a year to educate a K-12 student.)

Even with state incarceration rates slowing, it may be a long time before we break from nearly one in every 200 Americans living behind bars. But these federal statistics are, at the very least, a step in the right direction.

h/t Slate