The U.S. has long had the unenviable distinction of holding the world's largest prison population, in part because of tough-on-crime policies enacted in the 1990s.
But sentencing reforms passed in recent years appear to have made a dent, leading to declines in the population over the past eight years.
A criminal justice reform organization reported Friday that in 2017, the U.S. prison population dropped below 1.5 million for the first time in more than a decade.
The decline, according to the Washington-based Vera Institute for Justice, was driven by a sharp decrease in the number of inmates in federal prisons and decreases in several states with large prison populations.
Total U.S. prison population dropped to 1,486,000 last year, a decline of nearly 16,000. The number of federal prisoners fell to 183,000, and the number of inmates in state prisons declined to 1.3 million, according to the report. (The overall figure does not include the more than 600,000 defendants held in local, state and federal jails.)
The decline extended an eight-year downward trend in U.S. prison population that has been driven by federal and state sentencing reforms enacted over the past decade. But the Vera institute cautioned that it was unclear whether the trend would continue.
"Whether criminal justice reform can continue to fuel this sustained decline in the prison population remains to be seen," said Jacob Kang-Brown, senior research associate at Vera. "We must continue to do the hard work, as advocates and agents of change, to ensure that all our communities feel the relief of decarceration."
The report came as President Donald Trump called on Congress to pass legislation to help former inmates reintegrate into society and avoid going back to prison, as many do.
"We want former inmates to find a path to success so they can support their families and support their communities," Trump said at a White House summit on prison reform attended by two state governors and Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law, who is spearheading the effort. "Crucial to this effort is helping former prisoners find jobs."
"Nobody wins when former prisoners fail to adjust to life outside, or worse, end up back behind bars," Trump said.
Saying that 3 in 4 inmates released from prison have difficulty finding jobs, Trump said his prison reform program aims to expand work opportunities and other programs that would allow inmates to "re-enter society with the skills to get a job."
White House officials said Trump supports legislation that promotes "evidence-based risk and needs assessments" of prisoners and expands prison work programs, among other initiatives. They did not specify the legislation.
The House of Representatives is expected to vote next week on legislation that hews closely to the White House's prison reform agenda. The First Step Act, recently passed by the House Judiciary Committee, calls for "risk and needs assessment" of prisoners and expands recidivism-reduction programs for prisoners.
But the legislation is facing growing pressure. A group of influential Democrats in Congress expressed opposition to the bill on Thursday, saying it has "fundamental flaws" and that "meaningful criminal justice reform must include sentencing reform."