State and federal prison populations both declined in 2014, marking the first tandem decrease since the Bureau of Justice Statistics began tracking the numbers in 1978, according to a report the bureau released Thursday. The combined decrease of more than 15,000 inmates—the second-biggest annual reduction on record—brings the nation’s prison population to its lowest level since 2005 and accompanies a nationwide reduction in crime.
Since 2007, more than half of the states have participated in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative and made research-based policy changes to control prison growth, hold offenders accountable, and protect public safety. Although they vary in scope and significance, these reforms have sought to prioritize prison space for serious and violent offenders while expanding alternatives to incarceration for those who can be supervised more effectively and at less expense in the community. These efforts in 30 states have drawn extraordinary bipartisan support: Justice reinvestment reforms have received more than 5,700 “aye” votes in state legislatures, compared with fewer than 500 “no” votes.
Data-driven policymaking is not just a tool for finding new solutions for difficult challenges. When states serve their traditional role as laboratories of innovation, they increase the American people’s confidence that the government they choose—no matter the size—can be effective, responsive, and in the public interest.