The share of the adult population in prison has fallen to its lowest point since 1997, a new report released Thursday by the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows.
The report is the latest instance of the BJS’s ongoing Prisoners series, which has provided the public with detailed statistics on state and federal offenders for decades. Thursday’s report provides information on the state of the nation’s prison system in 2017, with data on both the federal system (which accounted in that year for about 12 percent of all incarcerated) and the prisons of the 50 states.
The U.S. prison system has been the subject of major dispute in recent years, with left-wing politicians and Emmy-winning documentaries decrying it as racist and overstuffed with low-level, non-violent drug offenders. The archetypical inmate in the minds of many reform advocates is, in the recent words of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.), “a nonviolent person stopped w/ a dime bag.”
To be sure, the United States does lead the world in per capita incarceration (although such counts tend to ignore political or religious prisoners, like the more than 100,000 Uyghurs likely being held in prison camps in northwestern China). However, the new BJS report paints a picture of a system that is shrinking, growing more racially equitable, and which mostly detains serious, violent offenders, not petty drug users.