I have some very good news: after nearly four decades of explosive growth, the prison population in the U.S. has dropped for the second year in a row. Inmate counts fell in about half the states in each year, according to the December 2012 data released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
This is a dramatic turnaround for the nation. Since the 1970s, the US prison system has been expanding at a phenomenal rate, growing from 338,000 in 1970 to over 2 million today – this is an eightfold increase, three-and-a-half times the rate of increase in our national population. So, reversing the growth is a tremendous achievement.
But while the incarceration rate in many states has fallen, it continues to rise in others. Crime rates across the country have dropped to the lowest levels since the 1960s. So, one would expect the number of prisoners to decline in all the states as well. What’s going on?
The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project has released a new infographic showing that the imprisonment rate fell in 29 states over the past five years – but increased in 20. What has caused this disparity? Each state’s criminal justice policies have a major impact on the size and cost of prison systems.
California, which was ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court to reduce its prison population, led the way with a 17 percent drop. Nine other states reduced their imprisonment rates between 2006 and 2011 by double digits: Hawaii (16 percent), Massachusetts (15 percent), Michigan (15 percent), New Jersey (14 percent), Alaska (13 percent), New York (13 percent), Connecticut (11 percent), Delaware (10 percent), and South Carolina (10 percent).
On the other hand, West Virginia had the highest level of growth among 20 states that increased in their imprisonment rates, rising by 17 percent. Other growth leaders include Arizona (16 percent), Pennsylvania (14 percent), Arkansas (12 percent), Alabama (9 percent), Indiana (8 percent), Illinois (7 percent), Florida (6 percent), and Mississippi and Tennessee (5 percent each).
Many of the states where the rate has declined have taken significant steps distinguish between offenders who pose a substantial danger and those who are low risk. These states have reserved costly prison beds for the dangerous offenders, and used less expensive alternatives to prison for lower-level offenders to rein in the size and cost of their corrections systems. They are using programs and policies that have proven to be effective at protecting the public. And they have adopted them with overwhelming bipartisan support.
Several states, including Georgia and Pennsylvania during their 2012 legislative sessions, reinvested large sums of the resulting savings into probation and parole in an effort to break the cycle of recidivism and improve public safety.
“Bending the curve” of prison population has not been easy, but armed with good research from Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project and years of hard work by such allies as the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the leaders of Right on Crime, Justice Fellowship has seen the reforms we supported become law. The result has been lower costs of corrections, fewer victims and safer communities. That is what God envisioned in Isaiah 32:18 – “My people will live in peaceful communities, secure homes and tranquil places of rest.”
Pat Nolan is the Chuck Colson Distinguished Fellow on Justice, and serves as the director of Prison Fellowship Ministries’ Center for Justice Reform. To learn more about Prison Fellowship Ministries’ work on justice reform, visit the Justice Fellowship website.