U.S. prisons and jails saw a significant decline in the inmate population during 2020, according to a Vera Institute of Justice report published on January 25.
There were 2,115,000 incarcerated people in 2019 – 1,435,500 in U.S. prisons and 758,419 in U.S. jails.
According to Vera’s methodology statement, the total inmate population was calculated by adding the prison and jail populations and then adjusting the total downward by 3.6% to avoid double-counting of people serving their prison sentences in local jails.
By the middle of 2020, there was a 296,300-person drop in the total incarcerated population – down 124,400 people in prisons (a 9% decline) and 182,919 in jails (a 24% decline).
In the last half of 2020, the prison population decline continued at a slower pace, while the jail population reversed course and began increasing. From July to December, there was a 5% decline (61,800 people) in U.S. prisons and a 10% increase (57,700 people) in U.S. jails.
Overall, the U.S. prison and jail population declined by 300,200 people to 1,814,800 in 2020. This is a 14% drop from 2019 and a 21% drop from a high of 2.3 million residents in 2008.
“In some places, simultaneous increases in jail populations and decreases in state prison populations were caused by state prisons refusing to accept people who had been sentenced to serve state prison time, suspending transfers from local jails due to COVID-19,” the report said. “These policies are institutional sleight of hand, akin to a shell game, in that they do not reduce incarceration but merely change its geography and jurisdiction.”
Connecticut (24%), Massachusetts (23%) and Colorado (21%) saw the largest overall inmate reductions of the 18 states for which both prison and jail data was available.
The overall decline in 2020 reduced the nationwide incarceration rate to 549 per 100,000 residents – down from 644 in 2019 and down from a high of 760 in 2008.
Despite declines in both the incarceration rate and the total inmate population, the U.S. still incarcerates more of its citizens (both in total numbers and per capita) than any other nation.