A report from the Justice Department indicates that the U.S. imprisonment rate in 2017 was at its lowest level in two decades. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

The number of people held in American prisons declined again in 2017, continuing a slide from that population’s peak in 2009, according to Justice Department data released Thursday.

A report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics states that “the number of prisoners under state or federal jurisdiction” by the end of 2017 had dropped to 1.48 million people, down from 1.61 million in 2009. The vast majority were held in state-run facilities, while a smaller share were in federal prisons. At the end of 2017, states held 1.3 million prisoners, down 1 percent from the end of the previous year. (Some states combine prisons and jails.) The report also touches on significant racial divergences, with incarceration rates among black people far exceeding those for white people.

Criminal justice reform has been a notable area of bipartisan agreement in Washington, with President Trump last year signing a sweeping bill whose goals included reducing sentences for some federal inmates. The topic has united conservatives and liberals, providing an area of common ground among lawmakers and others who say the nation’s criminal justice processes are unfair, expensive and otherwise significantly flawed.

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“The declines in prison and jail populations reported by the Department of Justice today are encouraging, but still fall far short of what is necessary to end mass incarceration anytime soon,” Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group that promotes reform, said in a statement.

According to the Sentencing Project, five states — New York, New Jersey, Alaska, Connecticut and Vermont — have cut their prison populations by at least 30 percent in the past two decades, a reduction the group attributed to “a mix of changes in policy and practice” in those jurisdictions.

Mauer said in his statement that the drops in prison populations were “heavily influenced by a handful of states” significantly reducing the number of prisoners they held, while a number of other states either saw modest declines or increases.

“In order to achieve significant reductions policymakers will need to scale back excessive sentencing for all offenses, a key factor which distinguishes the U.S. from other nations,” he said.

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The overwhelming majority of the overall prison population by the end of 2017 included people sentenced to more than one year; this group accounted for 97 percent of all prisoners, with the rest either sentenced to less time or awaiting sentencing.

This new report shows that the imprisonment rate — which looks at the number of people sentenced to more than one year per 100,000 U.S. residents — had dropped to its lowest figure in two decades. There were 440 prisoners facing such sentences in state or federal prisons per 100,000 U.S. residents, the lowest since 1997, when the rate was 444 per 100,000.

The data released Thursday also provides a glimpse of who makes up the country’s imprisoned population. Seven percent of the prison population was female. More than a tenth — 12 percent — was 55 or older. “Non-
citizens made up roughly the same portion of the prison population (7.6 percent) as of the general population in the U.S.,” the report states.

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This report highlighted stark racial disparities in the prison population.

While the overall imprisonment rate was down, among black women (92 per 100,000 black female residents) it was nearly twice as high as among white women (49 per 100,000 white female residents), the data showed. The imprisonment rate for black men (2,336 per 100,000 black male U.S. residents) was almost six times the rate for white men (397 per 100,000 white male U.S. residents), the report said.

For younger black men, the disparity was even larger.

“Black males ages 18 to 19 were about 12 times more likely to be imprisoned than white males of the same age,” the report stated. “This age group had the highest black-to-white racial disparity in 2017.”