US Imprisonment Rate Continues to Drop Amid Falling Crime Rates

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US Imprisonment Rate Continues to Drop Amid Falling Crime Rates

More than half of states cut imprisonment rates from 2007-12

Over the past five years, imprisonment rates fell in 31 states.1 California, which was ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court to reduce its prison population, led the way with a 26 percent drop, though many state inmates are now held in local facilities. Fourteen other states reduced their imprisonment rates by 10 percent or more from 2007 to 2012. 

States with imprisonment rate reductions of 10 percent or more (2007-12)

State(s) - % Reduction

  • Hawaii and Massachusetts - 20%
  • Connecticut and Rhode Island - 19%
  • Colorado - 17%
  • New Jersey - 16%
  • New York - 14%
  • South Carolina - 13%
  • Nevada and Michigan - 12%
  • Alaska, Maryland, and Texas - 11%
  • Wisconsin - 10%

At the other end of the spectrum, 15 states increased their imprisonment rates, led by West Virginia with 13 percent growth, followed by Pennsylvania (10 percent), Illinois (8 percent), Alabama (5 percent), Louisiana (5 percent), and South Dakota (5 percent).

Imprisonment rates decline, crime still historically low

Data from the FBI and the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that serious crime continues to drop, though there were upticks in certain categories in 2012. The overall crime rate is down 45 percent from its peak in 1991, and it has decreased 13 percent since 2007.2

  • The crime rate went down in all but four of the 31 states that reduced their imprisonment rates. It went up in one of the 15 states that increased their imprisonment rates.
  • The 10 states with the largest decreases in imprisonment rates had a 12 percent average reduction in their crime rates, and, in the 10 states with the largest imprisonment rate increases, crime rates fell an average of 10 percent.
  • Crime was down in states that continued with (and paid for) rapid prison growth, as well as those that did not. For example, crime rates in both Arizona and Maryland fell 21 percent from 2007 to 2012. Over the same period, Arizona's imprisonment rate grew 4 percent while Maryland's declined 11 percent.

States that have worked to contain corrections populations are proving that taxpayers can have less crime at less cost without hindering public safety. (See the infographic)

Prison population declines are about more than tight budgets

Conventional wisdom holds that the movement to contain prison growth is about saving money. Tight budgets surely invited scrutiny of the $52 billion that states together spend on corrections,3 but there are three more important drivers of declining prison populations:

  • Texas and other states’ successes: In 2007, before the economic crisis, Texas put a halt to its prison construction boom and invested $241 million in treatment and diversion programs.4 The results have been dramatic: State taxpayers avoided nearly $3 billion in new prison spending, and the parole failure rate is down 39 percent since 2007.5 Meanwhile, the statewide crime rate has fallen to levels not seen since the 1960s.6

    Many other states that have experienced recent drops in the crime rate also have taken substantial steps to rein in the size and cost of their corrections systems. Often backed by overwhelming bipartisan votes, leaders in these states have shortened terms behind bars for lower-level offenders or diverted them from prison altogether. Several states, including South Dakota and Oregon during their 2013 legislative sessions, reinvested large sums of the resulting savings into probation and parole supervision to break the cycle of recidivism and improve public safety.7
  • Strong public support: Polls show that Americans are strongly in favor of alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders. Large majorities support shifting more low-level offenders from prison to mandatory supervision, and they back specific measures, such as trimming the prison portion of sentences to ensure that offenders undergo a period of supervision in the community.8

    Influential stakeholder groups also support reforms, including business and faith leaders, police chiefs, and victims’ advocates. Some of the strongest calls for change come from the Right on Crime initiative, which boasts high-profile conservative members such as Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich, William Bennett, David Keene, and Grover Norquist.9
  • Research-based alternatives: A solid body of research has identified alternatives that cost less than prison and do a better job of cutting reoffense rates. The most significant are advances in risk assessments, which classify offenders into groups from the most to the least likely to reoffend and specify the interventions that would have the greatest impact on individuals.10

    When lower-risk and lower-level offenders are diverted from prison to community programs, new supervision technologies provide confidence that these offenders still can be held accountable for their behavior. Research also has recognized new strategies that positively change offender behavior, including mandating cognitive-behavioral therapies that improve impulse control, imposing swift and certain sanctions for rule violations, and offering rewards for staying crime- and drug-free.11

This powerful alignment of research, public opinion, and state success suggests that the recent downturn in the prison population and the shift to proven alternatives are not merely products of tight fiscal times, but rather reflect an evidence-based policy change that is likely to continue even when budget pressures ease.

1 Analysis by The Pew Charitable Trusts using data from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Corrections Statistical Analysis Tool.

2 Analysis by The Pew Charitable Trusts using data from the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Uniform Crime Reporting Program

National Association of State Budget Officers, State Expenditure Report: Examining Fiscal 2010-2012 State Spending (PDF), (2012) p.52. 

Council of State Governments Justice Center, Justice Reinvestment State Brief: Texas (PDF), (2007) p.1. 

Council of State Governments Justice Center, Lessons from the States: Reducing Recidivism and Curbing Corrections Costs through Justice Reinvestment (PDF viewer) (2013), p.1.,  Texas Legislative Budget Board, Statewide Criminal Justice Recidivism and Revocation Rates (PDF).

Analysis by The Pew Charitable Trusts using data from the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Uniform Crime Reporting Program.

The Pew Charitable Trusts, “Public Safety Performance Project: State Work.”  

Public Opinion Strategies and the Mellman Group, Public Opinion on Sentencing and Corrections in America (PDF) (March 2012). 

Right on Crime, “Statement of Principles (PDF),” .

10 The Pew Charitable Trusts, Risk/Needs Assessment 101: Science Reveals New Tools to Manage Offenders (PDF) (September 2011) (Not Currently Available). 

11 The Pew Charitable Trusts, Prison Count 2010 (PDF) (April 2010) (Not Currently Available)

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