After reaching a high of 1 in 100 adults behind bars in 2008, the U.S. prison population has now declined for three consecutive years. According to new data released by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of offenders in state prisons decreased 2.1 percent during 2012. The state imprisonment rate also dropped by 2.6 percent. The federal prison population continued to grow, though at a slower pace than in recent years.
Although conventional wisdom holds that the downward trend is driven by the economy, more important changes are actually behind the movement to contain prison growth.
“Tight budgets are generating initial interest, but they’re not the driving force behind such significant reforms,” says Adam Gelb, director of Pew’s public safety performance project. “What’s really motivating the change is the success that states like Texas have had in cutting both crime and costs; supportive public opinion, especially among some conservative leaders; and growing awareness that there are research-based alternatives that cost less than prison and work better to reduce recidivism,” Gelb adds.
In 2007, Texas averted huge projected prison growth when state legislators approved a data-driven plan that invested more than $241 million in evidence-based strategies to reduce recidivism. Since these reforms were enacted, state taxpayers have avoided nearly $2 billion in new prison spending, the parole failure rate is down 39 percent, and the statewide crime rate has fallen back to levels not seen since the 1960s.
Since the Texas reforms, about half of the states have adopted new criminal justice policies to rein in the size and cost of their corrections systems. Often with overwhelming bipartisan votes, state policymakers have changed sentencing laws for lower-level offenders and strengthened less-costly alternatives to prison.
“Growing prison populations aren’t fate or simply the product of giant forces of social or demographic trends,” said Gelb. “They are primarily the result of policy choices. State policymakers on both sides of the aisle are now taking deliberate steps to bend the curve and these are starting to pay off in lower costs and less crime.”
Research and public opinion are aligned on these reforms. Research demonstrates that many available alternatives cost less than prison and do a better job cutting reoffense rates. And polls show that the public is strongly in favor of policies that will stop the revolving door by shifting resources to these evidence-based alternatives. In California, voters sent a strong version of this message in 2012 when, by a two-to-one margin, they approved a ballot measure to modify the state’s “Three Strikes” law and focus expensive prison space on serious and violent offenders.
Research, public opinion, and state successes all show that the continued decline in the national prison population is not merely a function of tight fiscal times but also the result of data-driven reforms that policymakers will continue to support even when budget pressures ease.