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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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The faith community's support for alternatives to incarceration is a factor behind the shift in outlook, says Mark Earley, president and CEO of Prison Fellowship, a Christian organization pushing for criminal-justice reform.

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"The entrance of faith-based groups has made it particularly comfortable for social conservatives to see that a significant part of their grass-roots constituents feels differently about this issue," says Mr. Earley.

"Faith-based groups advocating for change has helped foster bipartisanship [on prison reform]," he says.

As a result, many states are reconsidering criminal-justice policies.

Some states are reducing the fraction of a sentence that must be spent in prison, diverting inmates to probation officers. Others are bypassing incarceration altogether, directing offenders to community supervision programs.

Many states are revising mandatory minimum sentencing laws enacted by Congress in 1986, which force judges to impose fixed sentences regardless of culpability.

The push to reduce prison populations and specifically to release prisoners early, hasn't been without controversy, however. Many worry that public safety will be compromised.

Crime Victims United of California, a nonprofit group, sued the state earlier this year over its efforts to trim its prison population. The group claims that releases driven by overcrowding would violate a 2008 voter initiative – Marsy's Law – that provides all victims with due process.

"It's a major concern to public safety," says Nina Salarno, executive board member at Crime Victims United of California. Many states are letting out prisoners with little or no rehabilitation due to budget cuts, says Ms. Salarno, whose sister was a victim of crime. "There's some very serious people [who] are going to be let out."

Incarceration is expensive, she acknowledges. "But what we have to pay is significantly outweighed by potential harm to society. We can't put a price to that."

The risk to public safety is real, says Wall, director of the Rhode Island prisons where early releases helped dramatically shrink the prison population.

"We are dealing with risk assessment for human beings, it can never be fail-safe," he says. But incarceration comes at a heavy cost to society as well, he adds.

"There are hidden trade-offs there," says Wall. "The costs that accumulate down the years, they have an impact, too, on funding for education, for health programs, for tax rates."

"And while that can't be captured with the same impact or force that a horrible crime [can]," he says, "the fact is, that has an impact, too."