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Prisoners in 2021

E. Ann Carson, PhD, BJS Statistician


January 6, 2023

The U.S. prison population declined one percent in 2021, another drop after the population sank 14 percent in 2020, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The latest number was the eighth consecutive fall in the prison population, which has plummeted 30 percent since 2011, according to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).

The report, based on data Abt Global collects under BJS’s National Prisoner Statistics Program, is the 96th in a series that began in 1926. It provides counts of persons serving time in prison under the jurisdiction of state and federal correctional authorities and includes findings on admissions, releases, and imprisonment rates. The report also describes demographic and offense characteristics of those incarcerated.

Highlights include:

  • The U.S. prison population was 1,204,300 at yearend 2021, a one percent decline from 2020 and a 25 percent drop from 2011.
  • Prison populations shrank in 32 states from yearend 2020 to yearend 2021 after falling in 49 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in the previous 12 months. One major reason: the COVID-19 pandemic. (See Prisoners in 2020 – Statistical Tables, NCJ 302776, BJS, December 2021.)
  • The BOP population grew by 5,200 persons (three percent) from the end of 2020 to the end of 2021.
  • At the end of 2021, the imprisonment rate was 350 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents. The figure was down two percent from yearend 2020 and plunged 29 percent from the end of 2011.

Among racial and ethnic groups, black persons had the highest imprisonment rate in 2021 (1,186 per 100,000 adult black residents), followed by American Indians and Alaska Natives (1,004 per 100,000); Hispanics (619 per 100,00); white persons (222 per

100,000); and Asians, Native Hawaiians, and other Pacific Islanders (90 per 100,000). Compared with 2011, adult imprisonment rates fell significantly for all racial and ethnic groups in 2021, including a 40 percent decrease for black persons; 37 decline for Hispanics; 34 percent for Asians, Native Hawaiians, and Other Pacific Islanders; 27 percent for white persons; and 26 percent for American Indians and Alaska Natives.

At yearend 2020, 62 percent of all those incarcerated in state facilities were serving sentences for a violent offense. As of September 30, 2021, 47 percent of those serving time in federal institutions were serving time for a drug offense and 20 percent were sentenced on a weapons charge.