One in every 31 American adults is under control of the correctional system.   The U.S. imprisonment rate is astronomical; it is six times that of many European countries.  This rather new reality is directly the product of the American war on drugs initiated by Reagan in the ’80s.

The Pew Center on the United States reports that the 1.4 million strong state prison population dropped in 2009, the first decrease since 1972.

Professor Chris Uggen, at Public Criminology, summarizes the causes identified by the report:

Pew attributes the drop to greater diversion of low-level offenders and probation and parole violators from prison; stronger community supervision and re-entry programs; and, a quicker release of low-risk inmates who complete risk reduction programs. State budget problems have likely played an important role in accelerating each of these trends.

The decrease is certainly better than an increase, but Uggen notes that it is quite small.  The prison population dropped by only 0.4%, or 5,739 inmates.  Further, the decrease in the state prison population was outpaced by the increase in the federal prison population, which went up by 6, 838 inmates.  Even so, Uggen argues, this is significant: “…any change in direction is meaningful after four decades of unabated growth.”

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.