GOOD NEWS, and bad news: The United States held 1.5 million people in prison in 2017, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported last week. This is the lowest number in a decade. It is still extremely high relative to numbers in other free nations.
Crime rates are far down since the 1980s and early 1990s, when politicians embraced get-tough-on-crime policies that ballooned the prison population. As policymakers eased up in recent years — and as courts ordered prisoner releases from overcrowded penitentiaries — the incarcerated population has declined.
The number of people in state or federal correctional facilities dropped 6.7 percent between 2007 and 2017. From the 2009 peak, the incarcerated population is down 7.8 percent. The number of sentenced prisoners as a proportion of the total U.S. population has declined steadily over the past decade. Though African American men are still locked up at a far higher rate than white men, the black adult imprisonment rate declined 31 percent over the decade, cutting into the disparity.
States from Connecticut to Texas deserve credit for pushing reform, which includes diverting people from prison when more cost-effective and constructive responses to their crimes exist; improving conditions inside prisons; and discouraging recidivism.
Still, getting the United States to a place where it is neither over- nor under-punishing crime will take more work. Cutting the number of nonviolent offenders in prison, on which reformers have mostly focused so far, is the easy part. The Justice Department reports that 55 percent of inmates now serving more than a year in state prison are violent offenders. Further moves toward de-incarceration will have to grapple with the question of whether penalties were too harsh for some of them, too.
So far, this question has not featured much in the national debate, in part because many state and national policymakers are taking only tentative steps toward reform. The recently passed First Step Act, which aims to mimic some of the smart reforms that states have tried, was still only, well, a first step.
Moreover, states and the federal government can do only so much by applying smarter policies when people are tried and sentenced. There are huge numbers of people already locked away, including a large number serving life sentences — about a third of the world’s total, researchers estimate. Prisons are filled increasingly with old inmates.
Democratic presidential candidates have discussed using the president’s pardon power to release more prisoners. This would not be a new idea. During his second term, President Barack Obama established a careful review system to vet huge numbers of pardon candidates. It would be worth reestablishing a similar program on the federal level. On the state level, too: Governors should apply their pardon and commutation powers in an orderly but more ambitious way.
But executive action is no substitute for legislation. If the country no longer wants to be known as the world’s greatest jailer, reform must continue in statehouses and Congress toward a system that is geared less toward warehousing people and more toward ensuring public safety without wasting human potential.