clock menu more-arrow no yes

Don't look now, but the US prison population is growing again

An overcrowded prison facility.
An overcrowded prison facility.

According to the Department of Justice, after the US prison population declined for four straight years from 2009 to 2012, it started growing again in 2013.

The new DOJ report (compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics) shows that 1,574,741 people were incarcerated in state and federal prison in 2013. That's up from 1,570,397 in 2012 — which is an increase of just .3 percent. But after four straight years of decline — and a growing consensus that America needs to reduce its dependence on mass incarceration — what's noteworthy is that it's increasing at all.

The decline over the last four years was led by state prisons — not federal ones. Now, it's state prisons that are driving the increase:

state federal prison population 2013

States incarcerate the overwhelming majority of US prisoners (there were over six times more people in state prisons than federal ones in 2013). And states have been the ones driving the reduction in the national prison population over the last several years, as they've taken steps to reduce overcrowding, and reformed mandatory minimums and other harsh sentencing policies that require offenders to spend years and years in prison.

The state prison population started declining in 2009 — driving the total prison population to drop as well. Federal prison lagged a little behind: this new report is actually the first one to show that the federal prison population is dropping (though it's still higher in 2013 than it was in 2010). But it appears that as federal prison has caught up to the prison-reform trend, states have backed off.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.