Yes, the American Incarceration Rate Is Going Down

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Photo: Sam Hodgson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The U.S. accounts for 4 percent of the world’s population, yet it holds 22 percent of the global prison population, with an incarceration rate three times that of the European average.

But new data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics finds that the trend is going in the opposite direction. When controlling for population growth, as German Lopez notes at Vox, there’s been a 7 percent drop in the nationwide incarceration rate over the past decade, from 492 prisoners per 100,000 Americans in 2005, to 358 prisoners per 100,000 Americans in 2015.

States have been trendsetters, with California alone reducing its prison population by tens of thousands thanks to ballot initiatives and legislative reforms.

While spikes in violence in Chicago and Charlotte have driven up nationwide violent-crime levels over the past year, as Josh Sanburn reports at Time, the crime rate is still near a historic low. A Pew Charitable Trusts report from last month found that from 2005 to 2015, the ten states with the biggest declines in imprisonment saw a 14.4 percent fall in their crime rate, versus an 8.1 percent fall for the ten states with the largest gains in incarceration. New York City is in the vanguard, having reduced both crime and imprisonment rates by over 50 percent over the last two decades.

While the causes for the great American crime drop are as many as they are muddied, it increasingly looks like mass incarceration is not — and was not — the solution.

Yes, the American Incarceration Rate Is Going Down