WASHINGTON — The number of state prison inmates decreased for the first time in almost 40 years, according to a survey of departments of correction throughout the United States.
The number of inmates housed under state jurisdiction declined by more than 5,300 to just over 1.4 million during the twelve months since Dec. 31, 2008, according to the survey by the Pew Center on the States.
The 0.4 percent decrease reported in the Prison Count 2010 survey marks the first recorded year-on-year drop in the total state prison population since 1972, according to the report.
In contrast, the federal prison population continued to grow, increasing 3.4 percent (by more than 6,800 inmates) to an all-time high of more than 208,000.
Excluding jail inmates housed under county or municipal jurisdiction, the total prison population in the United States — combining state and federal counts — recorded a marginal increase of fewer than 1,100 inmates as the incarceration rate continued to hover at approximately 1 in 100 adults, according to the report.
Many states are implementing policy changes, such as introducing or expanding alternatives to incarceration and treatment-based diversion initiatives for low-level offenders and earned-credit or early release programs for nonviolent inmates.
Lawmakers in many states have also enacted sentencing reforms to reduce probation and parole revocations for technical violations, and corrections officials have worked to improve social re-entry programs and strengthen community supervision.
“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,” says Adam Gelb, director of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project. “In the past few years, several states have enacted reforms designed to get taxpayers a better return on their public safety dollars.”
At the federal level, intensified enforcement of immigration laws and the consequent increase in detentions combined with the expansion of federal jurisdiction over a number of criminal offenses are driving the continued growth in the federal prison population, experts say.
Although the aggregate state prison population decreased, the survey recorded significant variation in the direction and degree of change in the number of inmates across states, according to the survey.
Across the United States, 27 states reported a decline in the prison population during 2009, while 23 states reported an increase in the number of inmates. More than 50 percent of the total increase occurred in five of the 23 states where the prison population grew.
Pennsylvania experienced the largest increase in prison population during 2009, up 2,122 inmates since 2008. Florida reported a prison population increase of 1,527 inmates, the second largest, followed by Indiana (1,496), Louisiana (1,399) and Alabama (1,053).
California recorded the largest drop in the number of inmates, down 4,257 since 2008, as six states recorded population decreases of more than 1,000. Michigan, which housed 3,260 fewer inmates since 2008, had the second-largest decline after California, followed by New York (1,699), Maryland (1,315), Texas (1,257) and Mississippi (1,233).
“After so many years on the rise, any size drop is notable,” Gelb says. “What’s really striking is the tremendous variation among the states. These numbers highlight just how much the decisions by state policymakers impact the size and cost of prison systems.”
In 2008, Mississippi reduced the minimum period of a sentence that nonviolent offenders must serve to less than 65 percent, according to the Pew Center on the States. In the 12 months following the introduction of the law in July 2008, the Department of Corrections released almost 3,100 inmates an average of 13 months sooner than under the previous 85 percent requirement, officials say. Through August 2009, 121 of those released offenders were returned to custody.
In 2007, Texas faced the prospect of investing almost $2 billion in new prison construction and operations over the course of five years to accommodate growth in the state prison population, which was projected to increase by up to 17,000 inmates by 2012, according to the Pew Center on the States. Lawmakers chose to invest about $240 million in a network of residential and community-based treatment and diversion programs, which has expanded alternatives-to-incarceration options in the sentencing of new offenders and available alternatives-to-revocation sanction options for probation and parole violators.
Texas lawmakers also increased parole rates and shortened probation terms as crime rates declined and the state avoided major new prison expenditures and reduced the state prison population.
Nevada lawmakers balked at a similar price tag of more than $2 billion for new prison spending in 2007 after projections forecast more than 60 percent growth in the prison population, according to the Pew Center on the States. The state enacted several new policy measures and reforms in the area of public safety and criminal justice, including expanding in-prison education program credits for inmates and increasing good-time credits for early release.
Nevada also improved and expanded vocational and substance-abuse treatment programs and reinstated a commission to review the effectiveness and efficiency of sentencing and corrections policies.
“These types of policy changes are not simply a response to the economic downturn,” Gelb says. “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.”
The Pew survey follows on the heels of a recent report by the Washington-based research and advocacy Sentencing Project, which looked at efforts to reduce state prison populations in Kansas, Michigan, New Jersey and New York. All four states achieved significant reductions in the number of inmates over the last 10 years, with New York and New Jersey reporting reductions of 20 percent and 19 percent, respectively, according to the report, “Downscaling Prisons: Lessons from Four States.”
Pew researchers conducted the survey in conjunction with the Association of State Correctional Administrators, which represents the directors of all state departments of correction and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Researchers surveyed all departments of corrections and the Bureau of Prisons for population counts for the year ending Dec. 31, 2009-Jan. 1, 2010, confirming that new counts were consistent with the 2008 jurisdiction count reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
While many state prison systems are seeing declines in inmate populations, the federal prison system may see an increase of 7,000 inmates over the next year, according to officials.
With U.S. prisons close to 40 percent over capacity, lawmakers are looking toward the causes of the increased numbers of incarcerated, says Harley Lappin, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
The United States has more prisoners per capita than any other nation. The federal government houses 210,000 people in prison, half of them drug offenders. Nearly 18 percent of federal inmates are housed in private prisons run by contractors, while the remaining 172,000 inmates reside in FBOP facilities that are filled to more than 37 percent of capacity.
For 2011, the prison bureau has requested $6.1 billion, an amount roughly $6 million more than the bureau’s 2010 fiscal year budget. Currently, each inmate costs taxpayers $27,000 per year.
“The inmate population far outpaces the bed space added,” Lappin said at a congressional hearing earlier this year.
One cause is an increase in female prisoners, who now make up 6.5 percent of the country’s prison population. The United States has also seen a 45 percent increase in the last two years of people booked for immigration crimes, while countries such as Vietnam and Cuba refuse to take back convicted citizens, leaving them in U.S. custody indefinitely. Approximately 55,000 federal prisoners are non-citizens.
Of the 60,000 inmates released last year, around 20,000 were deported. The average prison term is 10 years, while nearly 40 percent of released inmates return to crime and then are returned to federal prison, according to prison officials.
“I don’t think we’re doing a good enough job,” Lappin said while testifying at a hearing in March.
An additional contribution to growth is new federal laws for crimes that traditionally have been state crimes, include laws related to sex, drugs and gun offenses. The result has dropped state prison populations to a 38-year low, while federal re-entry programs designed to teach inmates job and life skills are hampered by overcrowding.
Overcrowding has led to greater violence among inmates who are double- or triple-bunked in rooms meant for just one prisoner, according to reports.
Of the federal prisoners locked up, 55 percent have been convicted of drug crimes; 15 percent, weapons crimes; 11 percent, immigration violations; 8 percent, violent crimes; and 4 percent, sex offenses.