U.S. prisons held six times as many people in 2021 versus 2017


WASHINGTON, D.C. – According to The Sentencing Project, U.S. prisons held six times as many people in 2021 versus 1971.

 “In the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States dramatically slowed down prison decarceration and increased jail incarceration,” said Nazgol Ghandnoosh, senior research analyst of The Sentencing Project.

“In 2021, US prisons downsized for the eighth consecutive year. But with a reduction of just 1 percent, it will take far too long to reverse decades of substantial prison buildup. To achieve meaningful decarceration, policymakers should scale back extreme sentence lengths both for those entering prisons and for those already there. The growing movement to take a ‘second look’ at unjust and excessive prison terms is a necessary first step.” 

National Department of Justice figures for year-end 2021 reveal:

•The U.S. prison population declined by 25 percent since reaching its peak level in 2009. Still, the 1.2 million people imprisoned in 2021 were nearly six times as large as the prison population in 1971, which was under 200,000. The United States remains the world leader in its rate of incarceration, locking up people at a far higher rate than any other industrialized nation.

•States have shown they can prioritize decarceration while advancing public safety. Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York have reduced their prison populations by over 50 percent since reaching peak levels. 

•The federal system and 17 states grew their prison populations in 2021. The federal system expanded by 3 percent in 2021, and has continued to grow in 2022 according to the Bureau of Prisons.

•Black Americans are five times as likely to be incarcerated as white Americans. Latinx people are imprisoned at 2.4 times the rate of whites.

•There were 2,291 children in adult prisons and jails, reflecting an 84 percent drop from 1997, the peak year for that statistic. Twenty-six states reported zero people under age 18 in their prisons.

The Sentencing Project promotes effective and humane responses to crime that minimize imprisonment and criminalization of youth and adults by promoting racial, ethnic, economic, and gender justice. Visit www.sentencingproject.org.

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