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Pew Survey Shows State Prison Population Dropped in 2009

  • March 17, 2010
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For the first time in nearly 40 years, the number of state prisoners in the United States has declined, according to Prison Count 2010, a new survey by the Pew Center on the States.

As of January 1, 2010, there were 1,404,053* persons under the jurisdiction of state prison authorities, 4,777* (0.3* percent) less than on December 31, 2008. This marks the first year-to-year drop in the nation's state prison population since 1972.

While the overall state prison population dropped, the Pew survey revealed great variation among the states. The population declined in 26* states, with some posting substantial reductions. At the same time, the number of prisoners continued to grow in the other 24* states, several with significant increases.

“After so many years on the rise, any size drop is notable. What's really striking is the tremendous variation among the states,” said Adam Gelb, director, Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States. “These numbers highlight just how much the decisions by state policy makers impact the size and cost of prison systems.”

In absolute numbers, California's state inmate count fell the most, shedding 4,257 prisoners in 2009. This follows a decline of 612 prisoners in 2008. Five other states experienced total reductions of more than 1,000 prisoners: Michigan (3,260), New York (1,699), Maryland (1,315), Texas (1,257) and Mississippi (1,233).

“The decline is happening for several reasons, but an important contributor is that states began to realize there are research-based ways they can cut their prison populations while continuing to protect public safety,” said Gelb.  “In the past few years, several states have enacted reforms designed to get taxpayers a better return on their public safety dollars.”

Common policy options included diverting low-level offenders and probation and parole violators from prison, strengthening community supervision and reentry programs, and accelerating the release of non-violent inmates who complete risk reduction programs.

• Mississippi:  In 2008, the state rolled back to 25 percent from 85 percent the portion of a sentence that nonviolent offenders are required to serve.  Between July 2008, when the law took effect, and August 2009, Mississippi released 3,076 inmates a median of 13 months sooner than they would have under the 85 percent law, which was passed in 1995. Through August 2009, 121 of those released offenders were returned to custody—116 for violations of parole rules; only five for new nonviolent offenses. Officials attribute the low recidivism rate to the use of a new risk assessment tool which is helping distinguish between inmates who can be safely released and those who need to remain behind bars.

•Texas:   In January 2007, Texas faced a projected prison population increase of up to 17,000 inmates in just five years. Rather than spend nearly $2 billion on new prison construction and operations to accommodate this growth, policy makers reinvested a fraction of this amount ($241 million) in a network of residential and community-based treatment and diversion programs. This has greatly expanded sentencing options for new offenses and sanctioning options for probation violators. Texas also increased its parole grant rate and shortened probation terms. As a result, this strong law-and-order state not only averted the large new prison expenditures but reduced its overall prison population as crime rates declined in the state.

•Nevada:  Three years ago, Nevada projected prison population growth of more than 60 percent at an estimated cost to taxpayers of more than $2 billion. The 2007 legislature voted nearly unanimously to enact several policy measures that expanded program credits awarded for in-prison education, vocational and substance abuse treatment; increased the number of credits people in prison and on community supervision can earn for good time and compliance with conditions; and reinstated a sentencing commission to review sentencing and corrections policies for effectiveness and efficiency. The combination of these measures and other reforms helped avert $1.2 billion in prison construction costs as crime rates declined in the state.

“These types of policy changes are not simply a response to the economic downturn,” said Gelb. “Before this recession began, states like Texas recognized that by strengthening their probation and re-entry programs they could cut corrections spending, protect public safety and hold offenders accountable for their actions.”

In the 24* states where the state prison population grew, more than half of the increase occurred in just five states:  Pennsylvania (2,122), Florida (1,527), Indiana (1,496), Louisiana (1,399) and Alabama (1,053).

The survey found that the federal prison population continued to grow, rising by 6,838 prisoners, or 3.4 percent, to an all-time high of 208,118.  Expanded federal jurisdiction over certain crimes and increased prosecution of immigration cases account for much of the increase.

Combining the state and federal figures, the nation's total prison population rose by 2,061* inmates. Given the small size of the national increase, the incarceration rate did not change and remains at or about 1 in 100 adults, or 2.3 million out of 230 million, according to Pew.

The Pew survey was conducted in conjunction with the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA), which consists of the directors of all state departments of corrections and the federal Bureau of Prisons. Most states reported prisoner counts for January 1, 2010. Pew researchers performed additional follow-up to confirm that the new count is consistent with the 2008 jurisdiction count reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

*Numbers updated as of April 1, 2010. (Report originally released March 17, 2010)

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