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How The Nation's Criminal Justice 'Footprint' Is Getting Smaller

"The footprint of the criminal justice system is shrinking," says Adam Gelb of the think tank Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ).

CCJ has published a collection of 40 interactive charts that trace long-term changes in crime and victimization, arrests, incarceration, and community supervision.

The organization says its "Footprint is designed to serve as a one-stop shop that puts current criminal justice levels in context for practitioners, policymakers, researchers, journalists, and others."

Trends are broken down by crime type, age, race, and sex. Each chart presents calculations of the percentage changes in raw numbers and per capita rates from the earliest year reliable data became available to peak years, and from the peak years to the most current data.

The analysis shows that while the size of the criminal justice system remains well above historical levels, it has "shrunk considerably" in recent years.

Two charts illustrate the idea that the criminal justice "footprint" is getting smaller: the national arrest rate dropped 60% by 2020 from a peak in 1989, and the rate of "correctional control" fell 32 percent from a peak in 2007 to 2021. Correctional control is a combination of prison, jail, probation and parole totals.

Juvenile arrests over the years showed a particularly big decline, dropping 85% by 2020 from a peak in 1996.

The data generally show how reported violent and property crimes have fallen since nationwide highs in the early 1990s.

The CCJ data are admittedly incomplete because they rely largely on federal reports that tend to be issued only after relatively long delays.

National reports on reported crime and victimization typically are not released until the fall of the year after they are compiled. Similarly, reports on prison and jail populations do not reflect increases in many areas after the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided.

The CCJ report does not include data on the cost of the justice system or court processing of criminal cases, also subjects that lack current federal reports.


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