U.S. Incarceration Rate Hits Two-Decade Low

Ending the cash bail system and expanding access to re-entry services will continue the trend

The U.S. incarceration rate has hit a 20-year low. That’s according to a new report from Pew Charitable Trusts, which analyzed the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). In 2016, about 1 in 116 U.S. adults were behind bars. That’s down from the peak rate of 1 in 100 locked up in 2006.

There are a few factors behind this steady decline, including historically low crime rates, but there’s more to the story.

Public attitudes toward crime and sentencing have shifted dramatically since the War on Drugs hit peak intensity in the 1980s and 90s. At the time, politicians on the left and right were hastily passing harsher mandatory minimum sentences. These laws left judges with limited power to order community service or other, less punitive consequences when appropriate. Mandatory minimums for drug and other crimes contributed to the explosive incarceration rates that criminal justice reform organizations are laboring every day to unwind.

Today, many of the same politicians who created the old laws are backing new policies to reduce incarceration. They’ve seen how ballooning prison populations burden taxpayers and are a counterproductive way to reduce crime. In fact, research shows mandatory minimums may increase recidivism. Many traditionally “tough on crime” states such as Texas and South Carolina have embraced corrections and sentencing reform because they understand the financial and human costs of imprisoning so much of their communities. As more states reduce their prison and jail populations — while maintaining low crime rates — other states are following.

While our incarceration rate has been on a steady downward trajectory, the U.S. is still the global leader in total incarceration and per capita incarceration. We cannot put our feet up and assume the decline will continue on its own. We have a lot more work to do.

Ending the money bail system is one such effort that needs more attention. The cause is advancing quickly in states from Georgia to California. LEAP speakers are engaging the media and working behind the scenes with local and national to organizations to replace cash bail with sophisticated tools to help judges determine a suspect’s risk to the community. Currently, arbitrary financial values let dangerous criminals with enough money go free while low-income defendants may be detained for weeks or months without ever being convicted of a crime.

Someone’s ability to pay should never determine whether they spend their pre-trial period behind bars. Ending cash bail would help continue the encouraging trend of declining incarceration while also reducing jail costs and the likelihood dangerous offenders will again harm innocent people.

LEAP speakers are also advancing policies to help people who’ve served prison time return home. Most jurisdictions fail to provide adequate job training, mental health and addiction treatment services, and other resources needed to succeed outside of prison. As a result, people on parole and probation are likely to get pulled back into the system because the circumstances that contributed to their crime haven’t changed. On top of that, folks often return to prison for technical violations that don’t harm the public, such as missing an appointment with their probation officer. Re-entry programs reduce incarceration, recidivism, the associated human and financial costs of both, and keep the community safe from crime caused by criminals who spent years in jail without receiving any legitimate rehabilitation.

Law enforcement voices are at the forefront of meaningful policy changes to end excessive incarceration. If you’re a current or former law enforcement official — we want to hear from you! When it comes to changing laws and shifting public opinion on these crucial issues, your voice can make all the difference.

~The LEAP Team

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