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U.S. prison population drops to 20-year low (as violent crime spikes)

(AP Photo/Cathleen Allison, File)

(AP Photo/Cathleen Allison, File)

Criminal justice reform advocates had reason to celebrate in 2016 as the U.S. prison population dropped to its lowest level in nearly 20 years. However, will the release of thousands of people lead to a rise in crime?

Reuters reported on Friday that the prison population decreased to 1.53 million people in 2015, which was around the number of prisoners in 1997. A change in federal and state policies, especially related to drugs, are responsible for the change in the rate of incarceration.

State and federal inmates decreased by 35,500 people or 2.3 percent, the largest drop since 1978, according to the Department of Justice. The federal prison population dropped significantly more than state and local governments, declining by seven percent.

While many will hail this as progress, especially those in favor of drug legalization, violent crime rose during the same period that incarceration declined.

The Washington Post reported back in September that the country became much more dangerous in 2015. The FBI stated that violent crime rose by four percent and homicide increased by 10 percent.

There were 1.197 million violent crimes committed in 2015, the largest number since 2012 and the lax imprisonment laws may be somewhat to blame. According to two separate studies, a 2016 report from The Royal Economic Society and a 2014 study from Birmingham University found that longer prison sentences can help deter crime.

With the Trump administration vowing to be ‘tough on crime,’ it’s yet to be determined if another increase in imprisonment rates will result in fewer crimes in 2017 and beyond.


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