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Highest Incarceration Rate in the World

US Incarceration Rate at Its Lowest Since 1995

The Pew Research Center (PRC) reports that the US incarceration rate fell in 2019 to its lowest level since 1995, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Just under 2.1 million people were imprisoned by the end of 2019, which equals a nationwide incarceration rate of 810 inmates for every 100,000 adult Americans. Between 2006 and 2008, the incarceration rate peaked at 1,000 inmates per 100,000 adults, but by the end of 2019, the rate was at the same level as in 1995 — 810 inmates per 100,000 adults.

So, why has the US incarceration rate dropped?

PRC explains that violent and property crime rates have significantly dropped in recent decades, although, certain violent crimes such as assault and murder have recently increased. Nonetheless, the decrease in violent and property crime rates has resulted in a decrease in arrests, particularly, between 2006 and 2019.

It’s important to note that in addition to the incarceration rate dropping, the number of inmates in the US has also dropped. While this number has not dropped as sharply as the incarceration rate, it’s worth mentioning that the estimated 2,086,600 inmates who were behind bars at the end of 2019 were the fewest since 2003, when there were 2,086,500, according to PRC. Not surprisingly, the inmate population peaked in 2008, totaling 2,310,300.

Despite this significant drop in the country’s incarceration rate and prison population, however, the United States still has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Impacts of First Step Act on US Incarceration Rates

Another factor that PRC attributes to the fall in the US incarceration rate is changes in criminal laws, citing then-President Donald Trump’s efforts to reduce the federal prison population. Former President Trump signed the First Step Act in 2018, resulting in shorter federal prison sentences and improved federal prison conditions. Key elements of the First Step Act include:

Reducing Recidivism: The Act calls on the Attorney General to develop a risk and needs assessment system to help the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) better understand the recidivism risk and criminogenic needs of federal prisoners. For background, recidivism is a tendency to re-offend, therefore, federal prisoners are to be placed in recidivism-reducing programs and productive activities to help reduce this risk.

Incentivizing Success: Under the Act, federal inmates can earn up to 54 days of good time credit for every year of their imposed sentence rather than every year of the sentence they have served. Eligible inmates can also earn good time credits towards pre-release custody, although, ineligible convicted offenses generally include violent crimes, terrorism-related crimes, human trafficking, espionage, and certain sex crimes, among others.

Confining Inmates Closer to Home: The Act requires the BOP to confine inmates in facilities as close to their primary residence as possible, such as within 500 driving miles.

Enhancing Prison Conditions: As a result of the act, pregnant inmates are no longer subject to the use of restraints. In addition, feminine hygiene products that meet industry standards must be provided to each federal inmate for free and in a quantity that meets their needs. Additionally, federal correctional officers and other BOP employees are required to receive training on how to de-escalate encounters between inmates and officers as well as respond properly to incidents involving inmates with mental illness.

Sentencing Reforms: The Act modified mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses, such as trafficking offenses. For instance, offenders with a prior federal drug conviction would typically face a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence, but the Act reduces this to a 15-year sentence. Offenders who were incarcerated for possessing crack cocaine and received longer sentences due to the Fair Sentencing Act may petition the federal court to have their sentences reduced because the First Step Act made the provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive. Another sentencing reform that resulted from the Act is the ability for federal courts to sentence low-level nonviolent drug offenders with minor criminal histories to less time than the statutory mandatory minimum for such offense.


The First Step Act is just that — a first step. Much work must be done to enhance the criminal justice system and uphold the Constitutional rights of all criminal defendants. Criminal justice advocates believe that demographics significantly impact the outcome of criminal cases, such as race, gender, employment, education, and more.

But no matter where you come from, know that the Law Offices of Christopher J. Cherella is here for you. As a former prosecutor who knows how both sides of the system operate, attorney Cherella has what it takes to ensure you receive equal treatment under the law and have the best chances of putting your case behind you where it belongs. From state crimes to federal crimes, you can count on our lawyer to defend and fight for you no matter what it takes.

We welcome you to contact our firm online or at (414) 882-8382 to learn how we can help you.