Myth or Reality?

U.S. prison populations continue to grow.

America has for decades locked up record numbers of offenders. Prison populations have grown year-to-year since 1972. Until recently, that is. For the first time in nearly 40 years, state prison populations have started to decline. According to a recent report by the Pew Center on the States, as of January of this year, there were 1,403,091 people under the jurisdiction of state prison authorities, 5,739 than at the end of 2008. There is still great variation from one jurisdiction to the next. The prison population declined in 27 states, but increased in 23 of them. Also, it is not clear whether 5,739 is a number worth getting excited about, as it is less than one-half of one percent of all prisoners. Finally, though no one knows whether or not this is the start of a new trend, the point is that for the first time in four decades, we have seen a reduction.

What explanations are offered for the overall reduction in state prison populations? One answer is diversion. Prosecutors who divert low-level offenders into probation, intermediate sanctions, and other programs help ensure fewer offenders are put behind bars. Another explanation is improved re-entry programs. Many prisoners are returning parolees, so when parole is improved and released inmates receive the treatment and benefits they need to be successful it is less likely they will go back to prison, which is reflected in prison population statistics. Yet another explanation is that people are becoming less willing to pay for incarceration and prison expansion, and instead favoring treatment and community-based programs.

Writing assignment: How has the current economic climate contributed to prison population reductions? Which states have released the most prisoners and what reasons have they offered for doing so?