The number of people under correctional supervision in the United States is at its lowest rate since 1996, according to a recently released report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The report, "Correctional Populations in the United States, 2016," provides basic statistics about the number of individuals incarcerated in jails and prisons, as well as the number of individuals under community supervision through probation or parole.
In discussing incarceration in America, reports often focus on just the incarcerated population. The new BJS report notes that probation and parole account for 7 in 10 individuals subject to some form of correctional operation.
The combined number of people under correctional supervision dropped for the ninth year in a row in 2016, falling 18 percent from 2007, generally considered to be the peak of incarceration in America. In 2016 there were 2,640 individuals under correctional supervision per 100,000 people, compared to 3,210 per 100,000 people in 2007.
That long trend is a product of a low drop year-to-year. Between January and December of 2016, there was only a 0.9 percent decline in the overall correctional population. That drop included a 1.1 percent decline in the community supervision population, as well as a 0.5 percent decline in the incarcerated population.
Breaking those numbers down further suggests the overwhelming driver of decline is a reduction in the probation population, as the number of individuals on parole in fact rose slightly (probation refers generally to surveillance prior to/instead of incarceration, whereas parole refers to a period of surveillance subsequent to incarceration). Indeed, the decline in the probation population is responsible for 85 percent of the overall drop in the correctional population since 2007.
The decline in probations may imply that more people are being diverted by the criminal justice system from exposure to incarceration. The BJS did not break down the reasons behind individuals being offered probation. Some institutions, such as drug courts, offer probation to low-level, non-violent offenders in exchange for getting clean, finding a job, or other pro-social activities.
Within the smaller proportion of the overall correctional population that is actually incarcerated, the decline in size is specifically attributable to a drop in the prison population. By contrast, America’s jails grew slightly larger in 2016, although remaining more or less constant in size as compared to historical fluctuations. Prison populations have declined to their lowest levels since 2004, aided in large part by reforms and releases at the state level.
Among the states, Idaho leads the nation in overall individuals under correctional supervision, with 3,880 people per 100,000; Maine has the fewest, with 960 people per 100,000. Those two states also are at the top and bottom of the rates for community supervision specifically. Oklahoma has the highest rate of incarceration—1,130 people per 100,000—while Vermont has the lowest: 340 per 100,000.
This wide variation indicates the patchwork nature of state carceral practices and implemented reforms. After decades of increasing incarceration, many states are now trying to shed their reputations as prison hot spots: Louisiana, for example, recently implemented reforms meant to end its reputation as the most-incarcerated state in the most-incarcerated country. In the BJS report, it takes second to Oklahoma, although most of its reforms had not been implemented in the period the report covered.