US Prison Population Continues to Drop

Handcuffed man standing in courtroom
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The total U.S. correctional population has fallen to its lowest levels since 2002, according to data from the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).

At the end of 2015, an estimated 6,741,400 adult criminal offenders were under some form of mandatory correctional supervision, a decrease of about 115,600 persons from yearend 2014. This figure equated to about 1 in 37 adults—or 2.7% of the total U.S. adult population—living under correctional supervision at yearend 2015, the lowest rate since 1994.

What Does ‘Correctional Supervision’ Mean?

The “supervised correctional population” includes persons currently incarcerated in federal or state prisons or local jails, as well as persons living in the free community while under the supervision of probation or parole agencies.

Probation” is the suspension or deferral of a prison sentence that gives a person convicted of a crime the chance to remain in the community, instead of going to jail. Offenders free on probation are typically required to adhere to a number of standard, court-ordered “conditions of probation” in order to remain free.

Parole” is conditional freedom granted to offenders who have served some or most of their prison sentences. The released prisoners—called “parolees”—are required to live up to a series of responsibilities as established by the prison’s parole board. Parolees who fail to live up to those responsibilities risk being sent back to jail.

Most Offenders Free on Probation or Parole

As in the past, the number of criminal offenders living in the free community on either probation or parole far exceeded the number of offenders actually incarcerated in prisons or jails at yearend 2015. 

According to the BJS report “Correctional Populations in the United States, 2015,” there were 46,603,300 persons on either probation (3,789,800) or parole (870,500) at yearend 2015, compared to an estimated 2,173,800 persons incarcerated in state or federal prisons or in the custody of local jails.

From 2014 to 2015, the total number of persons on probation or parole dropped by 1.3% due mainly to a 2.0% decrease in the probation population. Over the same time period, the parole population increased by 1.5 percent.

Prison and Jail Populations Declining

The estimated 2,173,800 offenders confined in prisons or jails at the end of 2015 represented a decrease of 51,300 persons from yearend 2014, the largest decline in the incarcerated population since it first decreased in 2009.

About 40% of the decline in the U.S. prison population was due to a decrease in the number of offenders confined in federal prisons. From 2014 to 2015, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) population decreased by 7% or 14,100 inmates.

Like the federal prisons, the inmate populations of state prisons and county and city jails also dropped from 2014 to 2015. State prisons saw a drop of nearly 2% or 21,400 inmates, with prisons in 29 states reporting decreases in their inmate populations.

Corrections officials attributed the overall nationwide decrease in the state and federal prison population to a combination of fewer admissions and more releases, due either to inmates completing their sentences or being granted parole. Overall, federal and state prisons took in 608,300 offenders in 2015, which were 17,800 fewer than in 2014. They released 641,000 inmates during 2015, which were 4,700 more than were released during 2014.

The nation’s county and city jails held an estimated total of 721,300 inmates on an average day in 2015, down from a peak of 776,600 inmates on an average day in 2008. While a total of about 10.9 million offenders were admitted to county and city jails in 2015, the volume of admissions to jails has been decreasing steadily since 2008.

The figures reported above do not include persons incarcerated or detained in military, territorial, or Indian Country correctional facilities. According to the BJS, there were an estimated 12,900 inmates in territorial facilities, 2,500 inmates in Indian County facilities, and 1,400 inmates in military facilities at the end of 2015.

Prison or Jail: What’s the Difference?

While they play very different roles in the correctional system, the terms “prison” and “jail” are often incorrectly used interchangeably. The confusion can lead to a misunderstanding of the U.S. criminal justice system and issues affecting public safety. To help interpret the often extreme differences and rapid changes in correctional population levels it is helpful to understand the differences in the nature and purpose of the two types of detention facilities.

“Prisons” are operated by the federal or state governments to confine adults who have been convicted of a felony criminal offense. The term “penitentiary” is synonymous with “prison.” Inmates in prisons have typically been sentenced to serve terms of 1 year or longer. Inmates in prisons may be released only by completing their sentences are being granted parole.

“Jails” are operated by county or city law enforcement agencies for the purpose of confining persons—adults and sometimes juveniles—who have been arrested and are awaiting final adjudication of their case. Jails typically house three types of inmates:

  • Persons who have been arrested and are being held pending plea agreements, trials, or sentencing;
  • Persons who have been convicted of a misdemeanor offense and have been sentenced to serve terms of 1 year or less; and
  • Persons who have been convicted of a felony offense and are confined while awaiting assignment and transfer to a state or federal prison.

While far more new detainees are processed into jails than prisons every day, many are held for as little as a few hours or days. Jail inmates may be released as a result of routine court proceedings, posting bail, being placed on probation, or being released on their own recognizance on their agreement to appear in court at a future date. This literally hourly turnover makes estimating the nationwide jail population at a given point in time far more difficult.