The three-year decline in America's prison population, a reversal of multiple decades of increase, saw a concurrent decrease in the number of Americans held for property, drug, and immigration offenses, and an increase in those incarcerated for violent offenses.
This conclusion is based on data made available Wednesday by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The BJS’s most recent report, Prisoners in 2016, found that state and federal incarceration levels had dropped for three years in a row between 2014 and 2016, reversing decades of near-continuous growth.
In addition to providing data on overall levels of incarceration, the BJS breaks down those statistics by, among other variables, type of offense. Its most recent report provides state-level distribution of offenses through the end of 2015, and federal-level distribution through September 2016. Over the period of the decline (2014 through 2016 inclusive), federal prisons accounted for about 12 percent of overall incarceration, while state prisons were responsible for the other 88 percent.
At both levels, prison populations declined, and similar patterns occurred in the changes in the distributions of offenses.
Within the states, fewer people were incarcerated for drug and property offenses at the end of 2015 than at the end of 2013. Approximately 11,000 fewer people were held for drug charges, including around 3,000 for drug possession and 8,000 for other drug charges, including drug trafficking. Some 22,000 fewer people were held for property charges, with the plurality of reductions being in the 13,500 people locked up for burglary.
Conversely, numbers held for violent crimes and public order charges increased between the end of 2013 and 2015. Most prominently, some 12,000 more people were incarcerated for murder at the end of 2015 than at the end of 2013. Incarceration for assault and non-weapons, non-DUI public order charges also increased.
This pattern—declines in drug and property sentences, increases in violent sentences—does not exactly match the federal level’s distribution. The number of individuals incarcerated federally for violent crimes remained essentially stable between September 2014 and September 2016, as did the number incarcerated for property crimes. However, violent and property crimes make up small percentages of the overall number of federal sentences: approximately eight and six percent, respectively.
However, there has been a large drop in federal incarceration, thanks largely to a reduction in people incarcerated for drug offenses, who make up 47 percent of all federal charges. Between September 2014 and September 2016, almost 15,000 fewer people were held for drug offenses. Notably, that doesn't mean possession: the BJS noted that the drug charges were "more than 99 percent" for drug trafficking offenses.
Public order crimes—which, at the federal level, include immigration and weapons offenses—also dropped between 2014 and 2016. About 4,000 fewer people were held for immigration charges, and about 2,000 fewer for weapons charges; the latter number was offset by the "other" category, which rose by about 2,000 in the same period.
In other words: at the federal level, low levels of incarceration for violent and property crimes remained relatively constant, while the number of people incarcerated for drug trafficking and immigration-related offenses dropped precipitously. At the state level, incarceration for drug and property charges fell, while there was a concurrent increase in the number of people incarcerated for violent crimes.
It is not perfectly clear—and BJS did not speculate—what social or political forces drove these shifts. However, several factors are worth considering. The increase in murder incarceration was likely driven by the spike in violent crime in 38 out of 50 states over the 2014-16 period. Combating violent crime's rise has been a major priority of the Department of Justice under Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
At the same time, the drop in federal drug trafficking incarceration may be driven in part by the Obama administration's decision in 2013 to not prosecute marijuana-related offenses in states where the drug had been legalized. That order was reversed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier this month, which may or may not result in an increase in drug trafficking prosecutions at the federal level going forward.
It is unclear what caused the slight dip in immigration charges. Notably, the number of non-citizens incarcerated at the federal level between 2015 and 2016 almost doubled, from just over 21,000 to just under 40,000.
President Donald Trump held a roundtable with several state governors on Thursday to discuss prison reform. The meeting primarily emphasized reducing America’s high recidivism rate, but may signal more interest in prison reform from the administration going forward.