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U.S. prison population falls for third year

CBS News

The United States prison population fell by 1.7 percent to 1,571,013 between the end of 2011 and the end of 2012, according to a new report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, marking the third consecutive year of decline in the U.S. prison population.

There were 27,770 fewer people imprisoned at the end of last year compared to the previous year. Nine states saw their prison populations decline by more than 1,000 people in 2012: California, Texas, North Carolina, Colorado, Arkansas, New York, Florida, Virginia and Maryland.

The recent decline in prison population follows an explosion in incarceration since the late 1970s. The prison population grew every year between 1978 and 2009, according to the BJS, rising from 307,276 to a high of 1,615,487.

According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, the United States has the highest percentage of prisoners in the world, at 716 prisoners per 100,000 people. (The finding does not take the latest decline into account.) A January PolitiFact report found that while the United States has the highest percentage of people in prison of any nation that can be verified, North Korea may have a higher percentage of people in prison. 

In January, the Congressional Research Service warned that prisons had become overcrowded and the prison system strained as a result of "a historically unprecedented increase in the federal prison Population" over three decades.   

California led the way in prisoner reduction in 2012, with its prison population falling by more than 15,000 due in part to the decision to house "nonserious, nonsex, nonviolent offenders" in local jails, not state prisons.

Overall, the population of prisoners in state prisons declined by 2.1 percent in 2012. The population in federal prisons, however, rose by 1,453 prisoners, or 0.7 percent. Over the past decade, according to the BJS, the federal prison population has increased an average of 3.2 percent each year.

Whites, who make up 78 percent of the U.S. population, accounted for 35 percent of the state prison population. Blacks, who make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, were 38 percent of the state prison population. Hispanics, who make up 17 percent of the U.S. population, were 21 percent of the state prison population. 

The national imprisonment rate for men was more than 14 times the rate for women.

Louisiana had the highest rate of imprisonment among the states, followed by Mississippi, Alabama, Oklahoma and Texas. Maine had the lowest rate, followed by Minnesota and Rhode Island.

The population count was based on data from 47 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, with counts for three states estimated because the states had not submitted data. An updated, final count is scheduled for release later this year.