The number of adults under correctional supervision in the U.S. fell to the lowest level since 2002 in 2015, driven by a drop in people on probation, according to a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics released Thursday.
At the end of 2015, the corrections system supervised an estimated 6.7 million people, down 1.7 percent from the previous year. That means 1 in 37 U.S. adults were under some sort of correctional supervision, the lowest rate since 1994, when it was about 1 in 38 adults. The Bureau of Justice Statistics, a unit within the DOJ, defines those in state and federal prison, jail, and on parole and probation as supervised by the corrections system.
The incarcerated population — those in federal and state prisons and jails — dropped 2.3 percent in 2015, to a little over 2.17 million. While that’s the largest decrease in one year since the first drop in 2009, according to the bureau’s statistics, and the lowest number since 2004, the bulk of the decline of all people under correctional supervision — 54 percent in fact — was tied to a 2 percent drop in the number of people on probation.
Parolees and those on probation, also known as the community supervised population, at over 4.6 million, continues to account for most of the correctional population as a whole. While the number of individuals on parole increased 1.5 percent, the drop in probation puts the community supervised population at its lowest level since 2000.
“Because probation regulation is highly localized, we can’t assume any one thing is causing the decline,” said Danielle Kaeble, a Bureau of Justice statistician and the co-author of Thursday’s report. She noted that many states have ongoing efforts to reform their criminal justice systems, including probation, and that overall, probation has been decreasing for the past eight years.
Although the Department of Justice’s report doesn’t give reasons for the declines in the number of people incarcerated and on probation, the Obama administration, through both former Attorney General Eric Holder and the current office-holder Loretta Lynch, prioritized reducing the numbers of bodies that flowed through the criminal justice system by encouraging less aggressive pursuance of mandatory minimum sentencing and reforming drug policy — with laws that apply retroactively in some cases. Among other reductions, the federal prison population also dropped for the first time in 34 years in 2014.
Adjusted for population, the U.S. incarcerates more people than any other nation. And in 2013, the incarceration rate in the U.S. was more than six times higher than other rich nations that are part of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.