Mass-Incarceration – US Numbers are Down, but for the Wrong Reasons

According to a recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report, the number of individuals held in state or federal prisons in the United States declined 15% from 2019 to 2020, which appears to be the latest time period for which data is available.  Most jurisdictions showed declines ranging from 7% to 31%   The number of individuals receiving sentences exceeding a year in either state or federal prison also declined.

The problem is that the COVID pandemic was largely responsible for the decline in incarceration at both the state and federal level.  Courts nationwide substantially altered their operations for either part or all of 2020.  There were significant delays in trials and/or sentencing proceedings for defendants generally.  This was reflected in a 40% decrease in admissions to both state and federal facilities from 2019.

As of the end of 2020, the number of state or federal prisoners had decreased by 15% from 2019, and by 25% from 2009, which is the year the number of inmates in the United States peaked.  Nine states showed decreases in the number of incarcerated individuals of at least 20% from 2019 to 2020.  The prison populations of California and Texas, as well as the number of individuals in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, each declined by more than 22,500 from 2019 to 2020.  This accounted for 33% of the total prison population decrease.

In 2020, the imprisonment rate was 358 prisoners per 100,000 United States residents.  This was the lowest rate since 1992.  From 2010 to 2020, the imprisonment rate dropped 37% among African Americans; 32% among Hispanic Americans; 32% among Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and other Pacific Islanders; 26% among whites; and 25% among American Indians and Native Alaskans.

The number of admissions to federal prison facilities dropped by 19,000 from 2019 to 2020.  The number of admissions to state facilities was down by 211,800 for the same time period.  This represents a 40% decline in the federal system, and state systems nationwide.  Releases from federal and state prisons also decreased in 2020 by about 10% from 2019, but at a rate lower that the decrease in admissions.  More than 6,100 persons died in federal or state prison during 2020, an increase of more than 1,900, or 46%, from 2019.

In sum the available data demonstrates that adult prison populations in the United States have been declining steadily since 2010, with a substantial fall-off from 2019 to 2020.  However, the foregoing shows that the most recent declines were attributable to the effect that COVID had on state and federal prisons, as well as county facilities, during the relevant time period.  Neither the courts nor prison systems were prepared to deal with the effects on their respective operations.  This is clearly reflected in the 46% increase in inmate death rates, which helped reduce inmate populations, but at an unconscionable cost.

A better, more efficient and more controlled way to achieve steady declines in inmate populations is to change the policies and procedures used to determine who is incarcerated.  We would gain considerably more traction in reducing these numbers through sentencing reform, as well as imposing terms of probation for very minor offenses, or decriminalizing such offenses entirely.  New Jersey recently took something of a step in this direction by decriminalizing possession of relatively small amounts of marijuana, but more is required.  If nothing else, cost is a serious and ongoing issue.  Prisons are expensive to build, operate and maintain.  They eventually become outmoded and must be replaced.  It costs tens of thousands of dollars per year to house an inmate in a prison facility.  Taxpayers should be enraged at these outlays.  Finally, and given our recidivism rates nationwide, incarcerating defendants seems to do little to prevent them from returning to the criminal justice system.

Despite the reductions described above, the United States still leads the world in incarceration rates.  Our system costs a lot of money, but many arguments can be made that it produces few positive returns.  Sentencing reform and decriminalization of very minor offenses need to be constantly explored as viable alternatives.

As parole attorneys in New Jersey, we are constantly monitoring trends in the federal and New Jersey state prison systems.

James S. Friedman, Esq., is a parole lawyer in New Brunswick, New Jersey.  If you or someone you know has been denied parole, call a New Jersey parole attorney to learn about the appeal process.  If you or someone you know has been charged with a parole violation, you need a New Jersey parole violation attorney who can represent you at your violation hearing.  Also, if you have criminal charges in the New Jersey Superior Court in any county, any New Jersey municipal court, or any federal district court located in New Jersey or New York City, call our firm to discuss your charges and your options.    You can reach us at 732-979-2259 or 800-361-6554, or view our website at


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