This week, the Justice Department announced that for the first time in more than 30 years, the federal prison population in America dropped. In a speech on Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that this year, the number of inmates in the United State’s fell by nearly 5,000. In 2016, they expect it to drop by at least 10,000.
This is huge news.
Holder told reporters, “This is nothing less than historic. To put these numbers in perspective, 10,000 inmates is the rough equivalent of the combined populations of six federal prisons, each filled to capacity … But my hope is that we’re witnessing the start of a trend that will only accelerate.”
Holder credited a series of reforms to sentencing policies, particularly aimed at non-violent drug offenders. As Jon Oliver’s brilliant, scathing, 18-minute-long takedown of the American prison system back in June underscored (warning the clip contains some profanity), the reforms are long overdue. The shift in numbers is encouraging news, but there’s still a long way to go.
Just how bad is the problem? Here’s a look at some of the numbers that show why America is still in desperate need of prison reform:
The American Prison Population Is Larger than the Entire Population of Houston, TX
According to the U.S Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 2.2 million are in prison in America. That’s greater than the population of Houston, America’s fourth largest city.
America Is Home to 25% of All of the Prisoners in the Entire World
America imprisons more people than any other nation on earth.
60% of the Prison Population is Minorities
4% of Prisoners Reported Being Raped—That’s More than 90K People—in a Single Year
More than half of all reports of sexual assault in prison are against prison staff.
More than 20% of the Entire U.S. Population Now Has a Criminal Record
According to the National Employment Law Project nearly 65 million Americans have criminal records stemming from a conviction or arrest.
Even Though Violent and Property Crimes Dropped by 45% over 20 Years, the Incarceration Rate Has Increased
Experts point to mandatory sentencing guidelines that have caused the prison population to continue to grow despite a drop in crime.
Every American Pays $260 Per Year on the Corrections Systems
America spends more than $80 billion a year imprisoning its own residents.
The reversal of the mass-incarceration trend for the first time in decades is an important step that should be applauded. But, more must be done. Jesus repeatedly taught that we are to minister to and care for those imprison, because the heart of his message is redemption. And, part of the calling of the church is to recognize injustice and to seek solutions that bring restoration to brokenness.
America’s prison problem is a scandal—that Christians especially—should become informed about. Changing policies and reforming a broken system is essential, but so is our call to minister to those behind bars, pray for those in leadership, foster true rehabilitation and to create a culture not built on mass-punishment, but on grace, healing and redemption.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.