The Bureau of Justice Statistics has released the nation’s incarceration number for 2014, and they reveal some notable positive trends. Our country can yet again present a decreasing incarcerated population, but much is still left to be desired when the numbers are viewed in proper perspective.

The criminal justice system is a particularly relevant topic in America, because although we possess roughly 5 percent of the world’s population, we detain about 20 percent of the world’s incarcerated individuals. The costs that have been associated with this – in taxes, in economic opportunity, and in collateral consequences for families and communities – have taken their toll on the country.

After decades of steeply increasing incarceration rates, more recently the overall numbers had slowed and finally began to fall. The continuous decrease in state numbers had caused the number of U.S. prisoners to drop gradually since 2009. This trend was interrupted in 2013, despite that being the first year that the federal prison population had dropped, because there was an upward tick in state prison numbers.

This swing caused a great deal of concern, and many were worried that the progress that had been made, slight as it was, would be erased. Fortunately, today’s more recent numbers provide reassurances that the upward fluctuation in 2013 was simply that, a fluctuation, and was not the demonstration of a future trend.

This year both federal and state prison populations decreased, placing the current number of prisoners below the lowest numbers from 2012 and once again putting the country’s incarceration levels on a strong, decreasing trajectory.

However, these new reports should not halt concerns about continuing efforts in criminal justice reform. The new numbers appear to be very positive, but when viewed in line with the incarceration rates of the last decade, appear to be only a very slight improvement.


State and Federal Prison Populations

When the rise of incarceration is considered as well – dating back to the crime waves of the 1980s – the changes today seem very small. Since 1980, the federal prison population ballooned by almost 790 percent. With similar – if not stronger – increases across state populations, this 1 percent decrease is nowhere near ameliorating the situation created through heavy increases in incarceration during the 80s and 90s.

Fortunately, today there is broader agreement between both parties than ever before regarding criminal justice reform. All seem to agree that the current state needs change. Many states are engaging in well-researched and evidence-based conservative reforms such as the Texas Model. These reforms take public safety and cost-efficiency into the equation, and it is largely thanks to these changes that the runaway incarceration rates were finally halted. Federally, efforts are beginning to form, such as the Coalition for Public Safety.

If both systems are capable of sustaining reform and continued evaluation, there is hope that the United States will no longer be viewed as the ‘home of the incarcerated’ but will once again be seen as the land of the free.