The prison pop­u­la­tion in the United States dropped in 2012 for the third con­sec­u­tive year, according to fed­eral sta­tis­tics released on Thursday, in what crim­inal jus­tice experts said was the biggest decline in the nation’s recent his­tory, sig­naling a shift away from an almost four-​​decade policy of mass imprisonment.

The number of inmates in state and fed­eral prisons decreased by 1.7 per­cent, to an esti­mated 1,571,013 in 2012 from 1,598,783 in 2011, according to fig­ures released by the Bureau of Jus­tice Sta­tis­tics, an arm of the Jus­tice Depart­ment. Although the per­centage decline appeared small, the fact that it fol­lowed decreases in 2011 and 2010 offers per­sua­sive evi­dence of what some experts say is a “sea change” in America’s approach to crim­inal punishment.

This is the begin­ning of the end of mass incar­cer­a­tion,” said Natasha Frost, asso­ciate dean of North­eastern University’s school of crim­i­nology and crim­inal justice.

About half the 2012 decline — 15,035 pris­oners — occurred in Cal­i­fornia, which has decreased its prison pop­u­la­tion in response to a Supreme Court order to relieve prison over­crowding. But eight other states, including New York, Florida, Vir­ginia and North Car­olina, showed sub­stan­tial decreases, of more than 1,000 inmates, and more than half the states reported some drop in the number of pris­oners. (Fig­ures for three states were esti­mated because they had not sub­mitted data in time for the report.) The pop­u­la­tion of fed­eral prisons increased slightly, but at a slower rate than in pre­vious years, the report found.


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