U.S. Sees First Decrease in Prison Population in Nearly 40 Years

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. prison population has dropped for the first time in nearly 40 years.

According to the most recent government data, the number of inmates is down 1.3 percent, to about 7 million offenders behind bars. Much of the decline, officials say, is due to a well-informed group of policymakers.

“What’s happening is that they’re realizing that we know so much more today than we did 25, 30 years ago about what actually works to stop that revolving door,” Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project for the Pew Center on the States, told National Public Radio’s Michel Martin.

Gelb believes real results have taken place and state policymakers are making strides to reform the criminal system.

“We learned a lot more about what treatment works,” Gelb said. “We don’t just sit around in a circle and talk about problems. There are cognitive behavioral therapies that teach offenders how to deal with the situations that they find themselves in and how to get out of and avoid those situations.”

States have been working on lessening sentences for non-violent offenders and even including treatment as an option for some, which officials think is working.

“To a certain extent what this debate is about or what this movement is about is about making the maximum use of available resources,” said Richard Thornburgh, former U.S. attorney general. “More and more we’re beginning to look at the criminal justice process as one that doesn’t depend upon stiffer and longer sentences, but one that makes sentences more certain, that ramps up the deterrent capability of the law.”

Recently, the number of people released from prison, 709,000, exceeded the nearly 740,000 who were sentenced to prison. The disparity suggests the system might be beginning to make some changes regarding sentencing and correctional operations.

“We have much more accurate risk assessments that help the courts and probation parole officials distinguish between who’s really high-risk and who needs to be locked up and supervised intensively and who are the folks at the other end of the spectrum who can be dealt with in a much cheaper but still effective and accountable way,” Gelb said.

Gelb believes the public wants to see the change continue after years of an inadequate correctional system.

“People are just sick and tired after 20, 25 years of ever expanding prison costs and prison budgets, and looking for more effective, less expensive ways to produce safety,” he said.
Some critics believe states are rushing into lessening sentences and policy changes simply because their budgets are tight. Gelb believes otherwise.

“They’re doing this because of public safety and because policymakers are realizing that there are more effective and less expensive ways of dealing with offenders, particularly non-violent offenders,” he said.

States See Results

States that have seen these results first-hand include Connecticut, whose prison population has dropped for the first time since 2000.

Federal studies show a continued decline in non-violent incidents as well as overall arrests. There are about 17,100 inmates in the 17-prison system, down more than 2,000 from four years ago. Officials estimate that by 2014, the population will drop to a low of 15,000 — a level not seen since 1997.

“Our population is now at more than a 10-year low, in large part because of the concerted efforts of the state’s criminal justice community, which is working to keep the violent incarcerated, while better preparing those who will return to the community for successful reintegration,” said Leo Arnone, commissioner of the state’s Department of Correction.

Changes in bail-and-bond regulations are helping to diminish short-term populations. And a new state program is helping reduce inmate sentences.

Gov. Dannel Malloy wanted prisons to focus on stopping repeat offenders, so he signed into law the new Risk Reduction Earned Credits act, according to Michael Lawlor, deputy secretary of the state Office of Policy Management.

Under the new act, inmates may earn up to five days a month off their sentence. These credits may also be revoked for non-compliance with programmatic requirements or behavioral misconduct, according to the Department of Correction.

Other recently passed laws that may have contributed to the drop in prison population include one that expanded eligibility for the court’s accelerated-rehabilitation program and a reduction in penalties for marijuana possession.