REPORT: National Imprisonment Rate Decreases, but Racial Disparities Still Remain

By Julie McCaffrey and Kayla Meraz 

WASHINGTON, DC — The national incarceration rate has dropped by 25 percent since 2009 because of recent reform efforts, according to a report published by The Sentencing Project.

This trend has been seen across races and ethnicities, although affecting each one differently, said the project, adding despite the promise the report brings, mass incarceration is still heavily present in the U.S., largely due to policymakers rolling back successful reforms to prevent advancement of prison reform efforts.

While, the report notes, 2009 saw the highest prison population, with roughly 1.6 million incarcerated, it dropped to 1.2 million incarcerated in 2021.

However, The Sentencing Project reports, this is still insufficient because imprisonment has increased nearly 700 percent since 1972. The report projects at the nationwide rate of decarceration, it would take 75 years to return to the size of 1972’s prison population.

Reform efforts have helped decrease imprisonment for every racial group, but the Black community saw the greatest decrease, with a 39 percent decrease since 2009, according to The Sentencing Project, adding, “Reforms to drug-related law enforcement, charging, and sentencing, especially in urban areas which are disproportionately home to communities of color, have helped to drive decarceration for Black Americans.”

Out of all the racial and gender groups mentioned in the report, Black women have experienced the greatest decrease in imprisonment rate, decreasing by 70 percent and Black men 48 percent—although Black Men were still imprisoned at almost 5.5 times the rate of white men in 2021.

The report said white communities saw the second largest decrease, dropping by 25 percent. White men’s imprisonment rate dropped by 27 percent. Surprisingly, white women’s rate increased by 12 percent, and is the only demographic in the report to do so.

The imprisonment rate for Latinx and American Indians both dropped by 21 percent, with Latinx men decreasing by 34 percent and Latinx women decreasing by 18 percent, the report stated. And, similarly to Black men, Latinx men were also more likely to be imprisoned than white men, at around 2.5 percent.

There was no data in the report mentioning imprisonment rates based on gender for Native Americans.

Asian communities saw the smallest decrease in imprisonment rate, with their rate dropping by 12 percent, the report noted.

The Sentencing Project detailed similar trends in jail incarceration, with all racial groups decreasing their jail incarceration rates, and the national rate decreasing by 19 percent. A notable difference is that while Asian populations decreased their imprisonment the least, their jail incarceration rate dropped by 41 percent, the most out of any other racial groups reported.

Overall, the report states that the trend in imprisonment has “narrowed, but not eliminated, disparities.”

A major obstacle preventing imprisonment rates from decreasing, the project asserts, are policy makers rolling back effective reforms and reverting back to past policies.

The Sentencing Project argued, for example, the governor of New York, Kathy Hochul, has recently advanced legislation that would expand the use of bail and increase pretrial detention—this mitigates New York’s 2019 reform which eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies.

In Washington, DC, a reform bill was blocked that would have eliminated most mandatory minimum sentences and created a resentencing opportunity after 20 years of imprisonment, the report said, adding this was both vetoed by the mayor and blocked by a congressional resolution of disapproval that was signed by President Joe Biden.

Furthermore, DC’s mayor has encouraged the city’s legislature to increase pretrial detention, called for new mandatory minimums, and has supported sentencing “enhancements.”

Florida passed Amendment 4 in 2018, which gives those who have completed their sentences a right to vote, noted the report, but added this was then tarnished when the state legislature and governor put an additional condition on the re-enfranchisement, in which the person who completed their sentence could only vote if they paid all their court-ordered monetary sanctions.

Regarding regulations such as those in New York, Washington, DC, and Florida, the report concludes, “These ineffective approaches to public safety would threaten the progress documented in this report while doing little to advance community safety or address the overdose crisis, while worsening racial disparity in the criminal legal system.”

The Sentencing Project insists, while national imprisonment and jail incarceration rates are decreasing, they still disproportionately affect minority communities, and the U.S. still remains in the age of mass incarceration.

“Excessive levels of control and punishment, particularly for people of color, are not advancing community safety goals and are damaging families and communities,” the report states.

It adds, “Ending the injustices described in this report requires uprooting punitive policies and practices that disproportionately impact communities of color, while also reducing excessive punishment for everyone.”

About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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