Smaller Prison Count Breaks 38-Year Trend
By John Gramlich, Staff Writer
Mississippi is a tough-on-crime state, and in 1995, like many tough-on-crime states, it approved a version of "truth in sentencing" — a popular law requiring inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their prison terms before they could be considered for parole. More than half the states have similar laws on the books.
Mississippi, however, changed course two years ago. Responding to budget constraints and a surge in its prison population — from about 12,000 inmates in 1995 to more than 22,000 in 2008 — lawmakers revisited truth in sentencing . They changed the law so nonviolent offenders would be eligible for parole after serving a quarter, not 85 percent, of their sentences. Over the course of the next year, more than 3,000 inmates were released an average of 13 months earlier than they otherwise would have been.
The move put Mississippi at the leading edge of a major national change, one that appears to be the result of teeming prisons, a deep recession and changing attitudes toward corrections. For the first time in 38 years, state prison populations declined in 2009, according to a 50-state survey released Wednesday (March 17) by the Pew Center on the States, the parent organization of Stateline.org .
Mississippi saw one of the sharpest declines of any state, shedding 5.4 percent of its inmates, or 1,233 people, from the end of 2008 to the beginning of this year, when the survey was conducted. The Pew study attributed the drop largely to the state's easing of its tough truth-in-sentencing law, but the Legislature has made other changes over the years to free up prison space and save money. Last year, for example, lawmakers removed a 180-day cap on the amount of earned-time credits prisoners could accrue by participating in educational and self-improvement programs behind bars, making more of them eligible for accelerated release.
Overall, prison populations declined in 27 states in 2009, led by Rhode Island (9.2 percent decline), Michigan (6.7 percent), New Hampshire (6 percent) and Maryland (5.6 percent).
The Pew study stressed, however, that prison populations are not declining because states are "simply shedding inmates in a rush to save money." It noted that prison admissions for new crimes are down, too — contrary to what many criminologists had predicted when the recession began.
The decrease in prison admissions itself could be a byproduct of the recession, says Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association. With prosecutors' offices around the nation facing hiring freezes or furloughed employees because of state and local budget cuts, there may not be enough manpower to investigate and prosecute as many cases, Burns says.
Meanwhile, the Pew survey found higher inmate counts in 23 states, led by Indiana (5.1 percent increase), West Virginia (5.1 percent), Vermont (5 percent), Pennsylvania (4.3 percent) and Alaska (3.8 percent). The national prison population increased slightly, but only because of an uptick in the number of prisoners in the federal government's custody, which the study attributed partly to an increasing federal crackdown in immigration cases.
The findings mark a significant turning point in corrections in the United States, which locks up far more people than any other country. Earlier Pew reports have found that about 1 in every 100 adults in the United States is behind bars, and about 1 in every 31 is under some form of correctional supervision, when probation or parole are included. Between 1972, the last time states' prison populations saw a year-over-year decline, and 2008, the year before the latest decrease, the number of state inmates grew by more than 700 percent — with state budgets often struggling to keep up.
States have taken a host of steps during the current recession to cut corrections costs, including laying off or furloughing prison workers, closing facilities, using technology in place of workers, double- and triple-bunking inmates and, ultimately, changing sentencing and release policies to manage their prison populations. In some states, declining prison populations can be traced directly to recent state legislative actions.
In Texas, for example, lawmakers diverted money from the planned construction of new prisons in 2007 and expanded community treatment programs instead, giving judges the option of sending more offenders to those facilities than to prison. Combined with other changes, including granting parole at a higher rate, the state's prison population has declined over the three years since the changes were approved, even though it had been projected to rise sharply.
Three years ago in Nevada, the state expected its prison population to increase 60 percent by 2012, costing taxpayers more than $2 billion in prison construction and related expenses. But then lawmakers approved an expansion of earned-time credits that inmates could receive by going through educational, vocational or rehabilitative programs, and the state saw a slight drop in its inmate count last year.
2010 has seen further efforts to speed prisoner releases as states look to wring savings out of their correctional systems. California, Colorado, Illinois and Oregon are among the states that have sped inmate releases, in some cases igniting political controversy over whether the safety of the public might be put at risk in exchange for savings. But in Mississippi's case, the Pew study noted that the offenders paroled under the state' recent changes had a much lower recidivism rate — 0.2 percent — than the national average of 10.4 percent.
In absolute numbers, no state saw a bigger decline in prisoners in 2009 than California, which had 4,257 fewer inmates at the end of the year than it did a year before. The thinning of California's prisoner ranks is expected to accelerate this year and beyond, as the state tries to comply with a federal court order requiring the release of 40,000 inmates in order to improve conditions in severely overcrowded prisons.