The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) found in a 2017 poll that 91% of Americans believe that our country needs criminal justice reform, and 71% of Americans say that reducing the prison population is crucial. As we examine the prison systems and incarceration rates of countries abroad, we cannot help but think that our own correctional infrastructure needs improvement. The numbers don’t lie: The United States has the highest incarceration rates out of any country in the world. In 2016, for every 100,000 United States citizens, 860 were behind bars.
However, it is important to note that while, yes, that number is high (the highest in the world) it fails to address what has actually been occurring with our prison system over the past few years. Although the United States does undeniably poses the highest incarceration rates out of any country in the world, and has for a number of years, we are actually improving. The number of people in United States prisons hit its highest point in 2006, when there was roughly 1,000 inmates per 100,000 adult citizens, a number that stayed consistent until 2008. Ever since 2008, however, that number has decreased steadily. Our latest data from 2016 is so important (860 inmates per 100,000 adults) because it marks a twenty year low in the country’s overall incarceration rate. Additionally, the number of prisoners and inmates has declined over the past twelve years, with 2,162,400 estimated inmates and prisoners in 2016, and 2,136,600 in 2004, 2016 being the lowest year since 2004. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, America has actually seen a waning incarceration rate over the years.
With all that said, perhaps some of the most important questions to ask are: how do we keep incarceration rates from rising again? How can we ensure that we maintain this declining trend? In December of 2018, President Trump signed into law the First Step Act. At its core, this new law will allow thousands of current inmates early release times, as well as decreasing prison sentences for future generations. The law passed with immense bipartisan support in the house, the final vote being 360-59.
In his State of the Union address, the President remarked that “this legislation reformed sentencing laws that have wrongly and disproportionately harmed the African-American community.” President Trump went on to say that “the First Step Act gives nonviolent offenders the chance to re-enter society as productive, law-abiding citizens,” and that “America is a nation that believes in redemption.”
The United States is making progress, and this legislative reform will help bring our incarceration rate down even further. That is not to say that we are done with these kinds of laws, because we have a lot more work to do in this area. However, this law is a great first step.