For the first time in a generation, key indicators show that the United States prison population - which has more than tripled since 1980 - is finally leveling off and may even subside.
While the trend is still nascent and hotly debated, such a move could hold dramatic implications for the funding patterns of state governments. For years, as prison populations have boomed in the face of get-tough policies on crime, states have been putting more money into bricks and bars, often at the expense of education and social services.
Indeed, over the past 10 years, Americans have spent an average of $5 billion a year on new prison construction - just barely enough to keep up with demand. But last year, in the face of falling crime rates, several states saw the number of inmates actually decline.
In New York, for instance, the inmate population dropped for the first time in 25 years. Other declines have been tallied in Massachusetts, North Carolina, New Mexico, and the District of Columbia. Overall, the rates of increase for prison populations have been leveling off since the mid-1990s.
"Crime is coming down, and if you look at arrest statistics, they've leveled off at only 2 percent growth in the 1990s," says Allen Beck, chief of corrections statistics at the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. "Those things will ultimately have an impact on the prison population."
Yet many experts remain leery of any projection of a decline. They contend the growth in the prison population has more to do with policy changes than violent crime rates. The debate, in fact, encapsulates two powerful crosscurrents at work in the American society: dramatic reductions in murder and other crime rates in many cities, but continuing enactment of tougher penalties and mandatory-minimum sentencing.
"Certainly one of the variables would be the restrictions on, or the abolition of, parole and the increasingly harsh sentencing practices," says says Charles Thomas, professor of criminology at the University of Florida.
THE intersection of these two forces can be seen in the rolling foothills of the Adirondacks in this small town near the Canadian border. Even though New York's prison population has subsided modestly, the state is still moving forward with an aggressive prison-construction program. Just outside town, a huge crane cautiously positions a 38,000-pound concrete cell into place in the chilly autumn drizzle.
This is prison building fast-track style - the Tinker Toy-like construction of prefabricated cells that will allow the state to finish the $130-million maximum-security Upstate Correctional Facility in 15 months, rather than the usual three years.
The urgency to get new prisons up and operating is felt across the country - from Virginia to Florida, Texas to California - despite the indications the prison population is stabilizing.
That's in part because overcrowding continues to be a problem in many areas. But it's also because more states are passing mandatory minimums and cracking down on parole. The average prisoner now spends more time in jail than a decade ago.
Nor does the get-tough trend appear to be abating. In 1995, the New York legislature passed a law that requires repeat violent offenders to serve longer sentences with less chance of parole. This year, the state cracked down on first-time violent felons.
"We now have statutes that require all violent offenders do longer sentences," says James Flateau, spokesman for the New York State Department of Correctional Services. "If they're doing longer sentences, the cells aren't going to turn over as quickly, so you need more cells."
New York currently has more than 1,000 empty prison beds. But they're all in minimum- and medium-security facilities, while the maximum-security prisons - those that house the most violent offenders - are bulging at the seams. That explains the need to get the new upstate facility built quickly, even with the decline in New York's prison population.
Such predicaments are reflected across the country. While some states' correctional departments are seriously overcrowded - California is operating at more than 200 percent capacity - other states have a surfeit of beds. But they may not be in the right place - nor the type needed.
"If you look at it nationally, it may look like there's a surplus of beds," says James Turpin, legislative liaison of the American Correctional Association. "But if your crime is occurring in Arizona because of the population growth there, and your beds are in North Dakota, that's not going to help you."
To help ease the congestion, many states are doing what New York calls "right sizing" - tailoring sentencing to meet prison populations. This means instituting alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders, while making sure violent offenders do hard time.
Since 1995, more than 13,000 nonviolent offenders in New York have gone through work release, shock incarceration, drug treatment, or earned merit time to get out of jail early. If they had stayed in the traditional system, the state would have needed to build an additional 5,000 medium-security beds, says Mr. Flateau.
The push to vary punishments is another factor that may help ease prison populations, according to Mr. Beck. In the 1990s, there were declines in the number of people arrested for violent crimes. But that was offset by a jump in the number of people arrested for nonviolent drug offenses - many of whom were given alternative sentences.
Despite all this, many criminologists believe the prison population will continue to grow until the political atmosphere changes. "I believe that until you change the mandatory minimum sentencing laws ... it will probably continue to grow," says Robert Gangi, Director of the Correctional Association of New York.