Emptier prisons: Inmate population drops for first time in 40 years
The number of inmates in state prisons declined in 2009 after a long upswing. Efforts to control skyrocketing corrections budgets are a key reason.
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Another further trims sentences for inmates participating in programs designed to reduce recidivism, such as job training and anger management.Skip to next paragraph
Also, criteria used to determine how likely an offender is to reoffend is part of deciding parole.
The results were immediate, says Mr. Wall.
The average population of the prison dropped by 87 prisoners from the previous year, and 81 percent of the 4,278 people who completed prison terms during fiscal year 2009 had their sentences reduced by the new earned-time laws.
"We've probably resolved [overcrowding] for the foreseeable future," Wall says.
Like Rhode Island, states across the country are fighting decades of explosive growth in their prison populations.
Fueled by stiffer sentencing and release laws, prison populations rose precipitously starting in the early 1970s. The war on drugs and zero-tolerance laws on crime sent the prison population soaring in the 1980s and '90s.
Between 1925 (the first year national prison statistics were collected) and 1972, the prison population increased by 105 percent.
In the nearly four decades since then, the prison population grew by 705 percent, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Today, about 1 in 100 adults in the US lives behind bars. The Pew report findings mark the first dip in the state prison population since 1972.
"Is this a tap of the brakes or a shift into reverse?" asks Mr. Gelb, of the Pew Center. "It's too soon to tell, but we think there's several reasons [behind the drop]."
At the top of the list is money.
Over the past two decades, corrections spending has jumped from $11 billion to more than $50 billion. It's the second-fastest-growing state budget category behind Medicaid.
"There's not a warden [who] wouldn't tell you that these costs … are bankrupting them," says Ted Kirkpatrick, codirector of Justiceworks, a crime and justice research group at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.
Some states, such as California, plan to release inmates before their sentences are complete.
Meanwhile, crime and arrest rates have been declining in the past few years, easing the pressure on state prisons. In fact, crime in all categories was down last year, according to the latest FBI figures.
Underlying these reasons, however, is a significant shift in attitude and in policy.
"The common story is the fiscal budget," says Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a prison reform advocacy group. "But it's deeper than that, too. The climate has definitely shifted over the last decade ... and it's very much a bipartisan movement."