There were 1,215,821 people in U.S. state and federal prisons at the end of 2020 and 549,100 in U.S. jails at mid-year 2020, according to two Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reports published in early December.
This is a 15% (214,400-person) and a 25% (215,400-person) decline from 2019, respectively.
Of the prison population total, 1,063,665 inmates were held in state and 152,156 federal prisons.
The prison incarceration rate was 358 per 100,000 at the year’s end (down from 419 per 100,000 in 2019 and the lowest rate since 1992), while the jail incarceration rate was 167 per 100,000 at mid-year when jail data was collected (down from 224 per 100,000).
Until 2020, the U.S. jail population has been mostly unchanged during the past decade, moving slightly up or down between a high point of 748,700 in 2010 to a low point of 727,400 in 2015.
Last year marked the first significant jail population reduction in years, with the report attributing that to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 population total was the lowest since 2010.
While the prison population has been slowly declining for decades, 2020 was the most significant drop in the last 10 years. The prison report also cited COVID-19 as the driving factor, noting that pandemic-related changes in court operations related to trials led to sentencing delays that account for “the 40% decrease in admissions to state and federal prison from 2019.”
Despite the overall population drop and some improvements in racial disparities, significant inequities remain in both prisons and jails.
“Black U.S. residents (465 per 100,000 persons) were incarcerated [in jails] at 3.5 times the rate of white U.S. residents (133 per 100,000 persons) at midyear 2020,” the BJS jail report said. “This marked a decrease from midyear 2010, when the rate for Black residents (745 per 100,000) was 4.5 times that of white residents (167 per 100,000).”
Of the total jail population at mid-year 2020, 262,100 (47.7%) inmates were white, 192,600 (35.1%) were Black, 81,900 (14.9%) were Hispanic, 6,700 (1.2%) were American Indian / Alaska Native, 3,700 (0.7) were Asian, 1,500 (0.3%) were two or more races, and 600 (0.1%) were Native Hawaiian / Other Pacific Islander.
“Black males were 5.7 times as likely to be imprisoned [in state or federal prisons] in 2020 as white males; Black males ages 18 to 19 were 12.5 times as likely to be imprisoned as white males of the same age,” the BJS prison report said. “Black females (65 per 100,000) and Hispanic females (48 per 100,000) were imprisoned at higher rates 18–19 than white females (38 per 100,000) in 2020.”
Of the total prison population at year-end 2020, 389,500 (32.9%) were Black, 358,900 were white (30.4%), 275,300 (23.3%) were Hispanic, 19,000 (1.6%) were American Indian / Alaskan Native, and 14,900 (1.3%) were Asian.